NOTE: This story was written remotely --Ed.
(02-Jul) -- Reigning Olympic and world steeplechase champion Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco kept his 21-month unbeaten streak going this afternoon at Olympiastadion in Stockholm, easily winning the steeplechase at the BAUHAUS-Galan, the seventh stop of the 2023 Wanda Diamond League. Since winning in Nairobi on 18 September, 2021, El Bakkali has won nine consecutive races including the World Athletics Championships gold medal in Eugene last July. The last man to beat him was Kenya's Benjamin Kigen at the Weltklasse in Zürich on 9 September, 2021.
PHOTO: Soufiane El Bakkali winning the steeplechase at the 2023 BAUHAUS-Galan in Stockholm (photo by Matthew Quine for Diamond League AG)
"It's only my second race this season and I feel good, said El Bakkali, who clocked 8:09.84 today, about three seconds clear of second place Getnet Wale of Ethiopia. "Now I have to see with my coach how to adapt the training." He continued: "The main goal this season remains to extend my world title in Budapest. I have won the World Championships in Eugene last year and the Olympic Games in Tokyo, so I really want to win my first world title in Europe."
Today's race was a tactical affair, instead of a record attempt like his 7:56.68 in Rabat on 28 May. Pacemaker Lawrence Kemboi Kipsang went too fast to be useful (2:39.95 through the first kilometer), and El Bakkali held back and was only in fourth place at that point. Wale took the lead in the second kilometer and both El Bakkali and another Ethiopian, Abrham Sime, followed. El Bakkali didn't take the lead until there was about 600 meters to go, and on the backstretch of the final lap he extended his advantage through the final water jump. By the time he was in the homestretch, the race was in the bag and he even had time to make a few hand gestures to celebrate his win.
"In 2017 I came the first time to Stockholm, and I was only 20 years old," El Bakkali also said. "At that time I had only won the Diamond League in Rabat, so it meant a lot for me to have my second Diamond League win in Stockholm. Since then I have won a lot of other races. Unfortunately, the men's steeplechase hasn't been on the program at the BAUHAUS-Galan anymore, so I am even more happy to be back winning here."
Also happy to win was Algeria's Djamel Sedjati, the surprise silver medalist at last summer's World Athletics Championships 800m. Running in that discipline today, he survived a too-fast first lap of 49.96 by pacemaker Khaled Benmahdi (also from Algeria) and literally staggered to the finish line in 1:44.59, just holding off Spain's Saśl Ordońez (1:44.67) and France's Gabriel Tual (1:44.85).
"Today was a good competition for me, but the weather conditions disturbed me a lot," said Sedjati right after the race. "But the most important is that I won. Next up is Monaco (on July 21). I am ready for Budapest and my main goal is to win gold at the World Championships."
Reigning Olympic and world champion Emmanuel Korir of Kenya was never a factor in today's race and finished last in 1:48.96.
In the women's 5000m reigning World Athletics cross country champion Beatrice Chebet showed her class, ripping a 59-second final lap to win in 14:36.52 over Ethiopians Lemlem Hailu (14:38.06) and Medina Eisa (14:40.02). Uganda's Sarah Chelangat set a national record 14:40.88 in fourth place.
"I was the only Kenyan in the race and you know, the Ethiopians are strong and help each other so I had to fight for this win," said the tiny Chebet who hopes to upgrade her silver medal from last summer's World Athletics Championships to gold this summer. "The first thing was to get the win today and the second was to fight with these conditions," Chebet continued. "Yes, the weather was not really good but you need to run in any conditions. It was not easy to finish the race."
The first non-African was Jessica Hull of Australia who finished fifth in 14:44.24. She was with the leaders at the bell, but did not have the last-lap speed to keep up.
Ethiopia's Freweyni Hailu was the winner in a tactical women's 1500m, clocking 4:02.31. She beat compatriots Diribe Welteji (4:02.79) and Hirut Meshesha (4:03.01) on the strength of a 59.5-second closing lap which brought her from sixth position to first.
"I am very grateful for this victory and also for my compatriots finishing so well," said Hailu. "The victory is great but the competition was not ideal due to the weather. But we have to adapt to all conditions."
Britain's Laura Muir, who was fourth at the bell, faded in the final 100 meters to finish sixth. Conversely, Irishwoman Ciara Mageean moved from seventh at the bell to fourth at the finish with a strong homestretch kick.
"I am delighted with my finish but it wasn't a very fast race, but I will take the positives from it for sure," said Mageean, the 2022 European Athletics Championships 1500m silver medalist. "Coming into the last 100 I found something from somewhere as we were all so close together. I have been practicing that turn of speed, or 'turbo,' to pick up when running fast."
Outside of the Diamond League program there was a 3000m for men. Much to the delight of the rain-soaked Swedish crowd, home country athlete Emil Danielsson got the win in a personal best 7:39.70. His compatriot Andreas Almgren got second in 7:40.01 just ahead of Frenchman Jimmy Gressier (7:40.21).
Today's meeting was marred when in the 400m hurdles three protestors got onto the track and stretched two banners across lanes one through six and impeded all of the athletes except for Norway's Karsten Warholm who was running in lane 8. Warholm won in 47.57, more than a second ahead of second place Kyron McMaster of the British Virgin Islands. According to Reuters the protesters were from the A22 Network, an environmental group.
"It is permissible to protest, but this is not the way to do it," Warholm told Norwegian broadcaster NRK according to Reuters. "It is disrespectful to those who are here to do a good job. I must honestly admit that I'm pissed off."
The Wanda Diamond League moves next to Chorzów, in the Silesia region of Poland on 16 July. That meeting takes place after next week's USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships which will allow more American athletes to join the series once again.