Dear Matthew Alice: While the rest of the world considers the Olympics a done deal, I’m still trying to figure out why the hurdlers landed in a small, slant-bottomed pool of water at some of the jumps. When did start? Does it have a name? Is it considered a “skill test” or a “sand trap”? — P.J. Granger, San D
Figure this is some twisted spectacle forcing contestants to hurdle, then swim, hurdle, swim until they either finish or drown? Naw. The event is the 3000-meter steeplechase, a traditional part of the collegiate and Olympic track-and-field repertoire. It’s no picnic, and your shoes must get pretty squishy by the end, but it’s not some sadistic form of high hurdles. The steeplechase is an obstacle race usually run by distance specialists and has no particular connection to the skill of hurdling.
The sport is Irish. A couple of hundred years old. But the original steeplechasers had the good sense to get on their horses before they started a race. The object was to go from point A by whatever route you liked, to the finish point, usually some distant church steeple. The modern-day steeplechase meets at some racetracks, and the sport is ever so popular with the snooty fox-hunting set on the East Coast. It’s unclear who decided the horse was unnecessary, but the humans-only steeplechase has been an Olympic event since the 1900 Paris games
The Olympic course has 28 hurdles (three feet high, five inches wide), seven water jumps (maximum 2 feet deep), hedges, and various other obstacles. The hurdles don’t move, so can stand on them to boost yourself over. Gold-medal times are slightly more than eight minutes. One of the first American winners was an obscure but scrappy little FBI agent who’d trained at night leaping park benches. In 1952 he beat out the world-record holder, a Russian. Herbert Hoover publicly declared it a proud day for America.