Mzungu is the southern, central and eastern African term for a person of foreign descent. Literally translated it means “someone who roams around aimlessly” or “aimless wanderer” … The term was first used by natives of East Africa to describe European explorers in the 18th century.
It’s often applied in Kenya to mean “white foreigner”, someone who visually sticks out as different. It’s not meant as an offensive word, it’s just the word the locals use.
I bring this up because you don’t have to be all that plugged in to the world of track and field to know that the men’s steeplechase is dominated by Kenyans (and Kenyan expatriates).
Ignoring the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, for which Kenya participated in international boycotts, since 1968 Kenyans and Kenyan expatriates have won:
100% of the Olympic gold medals
85% of the World Championships gold medals, including the last 11 in a row
70% of the Olympic medals, including 2 sweeps
64% of the World Championships medals, including 3 sweeps
There would likely be more medal sweeps if nations were allowed more than three entries. It’s the norm to see Kenyans blanketing the entire front-end of a steeplechase at one-day invitational meets.
So at today’s Herculis Diamond League meet in Monaco, a very strange thing happened.
As the bell rang to begin the final lap, a young American steeplechaser named Evan Jager was third and closing on the leaders. The race leader at that point was no chump, either — it was Paul Koech, the third fastest of all time.
Jager could come no closer, but held on for third and broke the American Record with 8:06.81. It put him eighth on the 2012 World List, but while running this time he beat world #2 Richard Mateelong and world #5 Jairus Birech.
This gives rise to a number of questions…
Question #1: How close is Jager to being the fastest mzungu ever?
That depends on how you look at things, but the short answer is “real darn close”.
Weeding out the Kenyans (and Kenyan expatriates), here are the fastest steeplechasers of all time:
|7:55.28||Brahim Boulami (MAR)||2001|
|8:01.18||Bouabdellah Tahri (FRA)||2009|
|8:02.09||Mahiédine Mekhissi-Benabbad (FRA)||2011|
|8:03.57||Ali Ezzine (MAR)||2000|
|8:03.81||Benjamin Kiplagat (UGA)||2010|
|8:04.95||Simon Vroemen (NED)||2005|
|8:05.75||Mustapha Mohamed (SWE)||2007|
|8:06.16||Roba Gari (ETH)||2012|
|8:06.81||Evan Jager (USA)||today|
|8:07.02||Brahim Taleb (MAR)||2007|
Boulami’s data is in red because while his time still stands as official, he failed an EPO test the following year (and 2001, when he ran that time, was the infancy of EPO testing). So depending on how you want to see it, Jager is either the ninth- or eight-fastest non-Kenyan of all time. I’m not going to wade into the question of how he ranks if you take “mzungu” to mean “white foreigner”, because those of Arabic descent don’t fit neatly into the pigeonholes of white and black.
Question #2: Can Jager win an Olympic medal?
Yes, he definitely can. It’s going to be tough to do, but it’s possible. Here’s who he has to beat.
Kenya gets only three entries. The ones that survived the brutal Kenyan trials are Brimin Kipruto, Ezekiel Kemboi and Abel Mutai. Kipruto’s PR is 7:53.64, just .01 off the world record, and is the favorite to win. Kemboi ra 7:55.76 last year but has been involved in legal issues that at best are a major distraction to Olympic preparation and at worst could land him in jail. Mutai’s PR is 8:01.67 from this year. If one of them falls–and it happens–or just has a bad race, or Jager continues his remarkable improvement, then the door is open.
Non-Kenyans who have run under 8:10 this year are Ethiopian Roba Gari (8:06.16) and…well, besides Jager, nobody else. Since the pre-Olympic season is basically over, Jager enters London as the fourth-fastest in his event (Kemboi’s best race was at altitude), and just fractions of a second out of third.
That would give him a chance at a medal even if 8:06 were the limit of his abilities. That’s always possible; rarely does anyone’s lifetime PR come with the sense that you could do no more. Jager has something else, though, that makes most observers believe he has more in him.
This was only the fifth steeplechase he’s ever run. He didn’t take up the event until this spring, with his first race at the Mt. SAC Relays in April. The rest of his races are the USATF High-Performance meet in May (faceplanting in the final water jump) and the heats and finals of the Olympic Trials in June, and then this shocker today. That’s it.
Jager was a 1500 and 5000 runner who left college to turn pro after his freshman season at Wisconsin. An injury cut short his 2010 season and he used the entirety of 2011 to rebuild fitness. He and coach Jerry Schumacher decided to try the steeple, and it’s worked out very well. He’s still only 23 years old.
This leads us to one final question.
Question #3: Is Jager the fastest neophyte of all time?
That’s hard to answer, but he’s definitely one of the fastest. Using the excellent resources at alltime-athletics.com, which lists every steeplechase race under 8:25.00, here’s what I’ve found.
The first time Brimin Kipruto broke 8:25, he ran 8:05.52 (in May of 2004). That may not have been his first steeplechase, but it was his first one of note. John Kosgei’s 8:05.68 was also his first race under 8:25. Paul Koech’s 8:05.91 in June 2002 was just his third ever under 8:25. Reuben Kosgei’s 8:03.92 was his fourth race under 8:25, and Richard Matelong hit 8:05.96 in his fifth.
Evan Jager is now in their company. The PRs for those five above are 7:53.64 (#2 all-time), 8:03.89, 7:54.31 (#3 all-time), 7:57.29, and 7:56.81 respectively.
Is Jager’s run today something to get excited about? Yes, very much. Given that he’s so young and so inexperienced in this event, he could very soon be a threat to take on and actually beat the very best Kenyans. Until today, that was thought to be essentially impossible for anyone, let alone an American runner.