Why is it called the steeplechase? The unusual origins of the Olympic event - and its name explained

Requiring runners to jump over large barrier hurdles and land in water pits on the track, it has a number of characteristics that distinguish itself from the other events

The athletics programme got underway at Tokyo 2020, with the world’s best track and field stars all attempting to win gold in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium.

Most athletics events are straightforward, requiring athletes to jump the furthest, run the fastest, or throw the longest.

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However, one event stands out because of its quirky attributes - the 3,000m steeplechase.

Winfred Mutile Yavi of Bahrain in the heats of the womens 3000m steeplechase (Photo by Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

Requiring runners to jump over large barrier hurdles and land in water pits on the track, it has a number of characteristics that distinguish itself from the other events.

Here’s all you need to know about the origins of the steeplechase, and how it got its name.

Why is it called the steeplechase?

The event was originally conceived in the UK.

Peruth Chemutai of Uganda in the heats of the womens 3000m steeplechase (Photo by Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

Runners would often race each other from one town’s church steeple to the next. The steeples were chosen because they were easy to spot from long distances, giving the runners a visible finish line.

This is why it’s called the steeplechase, as the runners were literally chasing each other to church steeples.

Why do the runners jump over barriers in the steeplechase?

The obstacles on the track during the steeplechase are also inspired by the event’s church running origins.

Because participants were running through the countryside, they would jump over wooden fences, stone walls and small rivers on their way to the steeple.

When the race was modernised into the athletics programme, the walls were simulated with large barrier hurdles and the rivers were simulated with the water pit.

According to the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), the modern 3,000-meter steeplechase track event first originated at Oxford University in the mid-19th century.

It made its first Olympic appearance in 1920, however, the women only raced it at the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing.

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What obstacles are in the steeplechase?

The current format of the steeplechase consists of five barriers: four hurdles plus the barrier before the water pit.

For the men, the barriers are 36 inches, and for the women they are 30 inches.

The water pit is 12 feet long for both events.

When is the steeplechase at Tokyo 2020?

The steeplechase heats have already passed for both the men and women.

However, the finals are yet to be completed.

The women’s steeplechase final takes place on 4 August.

The men's steeplechase final takes place on 2 August.