On the Fourth of July in Paris, Evan Jager did something perfect. The 26-year-old American lined up for a 3,000-meter steeplechase against nearly all of the best steeplers in the world, and over the first five minutes of the race, he joined Kenyan stud Jairus Birech in running away from the entire field. There was nothing insanely remarkable about that—Jager and Birech were running a pace that both had hit before, and they had gone 1-2 (both times with Birech first) in two prior high-profile meets. With 900 meters to go, though, Jager dropped the hammer.
His cranking of the pace was evident immediately over the hurdles: Birech couldn’t get over the barriers smoothly while running that fast that late in the race, while getting over the 36-inch hurdles presented no problem for Jager.
Until the very last one.
With one hurdle and a hundred meters left in a race that takes 35 hurdles and 3000 meters, Jager had it in the bag. He was surely going to win in a field tougher than one he’d see in a World or Olympic final, surely going to smash his own American record, and surely going to become the first non-African to break eight minutes. And then ...
I’ve watched the replay dozens of times, and I can never see exactly where Jager makes contact with the barrier. He said in a post-race interview that a toe on his trail leg caught the hurdle, and sure, he absolutely would not have fallen otherwise. But this is not one for the archives of steeple fails, which is what makes it so perfect. Jager ate shit oh-so-briefly—and not really even on a hurdle—and then got up immediately after and sprinted to a new American record in the event, running away from a field that included the last four world champions and last three Olympic gold medalists. His time of 8:00.45 shaved four seconds off of his old national standard.
This is a heartwarming tale of the triumph of the human spirit, I guess; it is also a ludicrous and wonderful moment. Ha ha, this mzungu thinks he can just run away from the Kenyans? Watch him run out of gas at the most humiliating time possible!
“Mzungu” is a Bantu word for “white person,” and on the rare occasions that a white has shown that he can consistently hang with the East Africans in international distance races, Kenyans have been known to use it as an affectionate appellation. Perhaps the most famous mzungu to date was Craig “Balls” Mottram of Australia, who was such an anomaly last decade that Nike produced a documentary about him titled The Big Mazungo.
After Saturday’s race, it was clear that Jager is the biggest mzungu now. Kenyan pacemaker Haron Lagat briefly congratulated Birech before running over to console Jager, and in post-race interviews, Birech made it clear that he knows that Jager is a serious threat to win a gold medal at the world championships this summer.
That medal would be historic because Kenyan men have dominated the event about as much as one country can dominate one athletic discipline. Kenya didn’t go to the Olympics in 1976 or 1980, but outside of those years, a man born in Kenya has won every single Olympic gold medal in the event since 1968. They’ve been a hair less dominant at the world championships, where they’re only undefeated since 1991. This is why Jager showing he can really do this is such a big deal.
Listen to British commentator Tim Hutchings throw away any pretense of objectivity as he gleefully narrates Jager’s surprising lead:
Cultural dynamics in global sports are very different than those in domestic ones, and if you’re used to the fault lines of American leagues, it may seem slightly off-putting to hear Hutchings joyously scream, “Enjoy this if you like to see someone get among the East Africans, the Kenyans in particular!”
That’s a lot of the fun of international sports, though—the way it crosses everything up and makes what might seem ridiculous in some other context perfectly normal. When Evan Jager lines up against four Kenyans and the rest of the world seeking a global title in August, three letters will suffice: U-S-A.