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Hurdles, water jumps and chaos make steeplechase the most exciting event in the Olympics

It's the race with the hurdles and the water jump, and it's nothing but chaos and fun.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Imagine running seven-and-a-half laps around a track as fast as you can. Then imagine having to jump over five hurdles and one water jump per lap. That's the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the craziest, most chaotic race in the Olympics.

A combination of speed, endurance and athleticism -- the coach of Evan Jager, the American record holder in the steeplechase, said it takes someone who can play basketball to be good at the event -- the steeplechase isn't easy, but it is fun ... especially if you're watching from your couch. With the women's final set to go off on Monday and the men's final on Wednesday, there are more than a few reasons to watch what could be two of the most exciting races in Rio.

Bob Costas once quipped that race walking was like holding a competition to see who can whisper the loudest. The steeplechase, then, might as well be a contest to see who can scream for as long and as loud as they can while having two-by-fours thrown at them.

The women's race is at 10:15 a.m. ET on Monday, and the men's is on Wednesday at 10:50 a.m. Here's why you should watch:

Hurdles and barriers

The event, which has 28 hurdles and seven water barriers, originated in Britain in the mid-19th century when runners would race from one town steeple to another jumping obstacles and small walls along the way, according to the International Association of Athletic Federations.

The hurdles are agonizing for the athletes, who can never find a rhythm on the track, and the water jumps ... well, they can get ugly:

Kenyan dominance

Athletes form the African nation of Kenya have dominated the steeplechase since 1968, when Amos Biwott led a 1-2 Kenyan finish in the Mexico City games. Since those games, of the 36 medals awarded, 21 of them have gone to Kenyan athletes. In 1992 and 2004, Kenya swept the top three spots.

Like the Jamaicans and sprinting, the Kenyans are nearly unbeatable in the steeplechase. Ezekiel Kemboi is running for his third Olympic gold. He raced to a shocking win in 2004 and has been dominant since 2009, winning every world title contested -€” that's one gold medal and four world titles (world championships occur in odd years). His kick in the final lap is devastating, and his celebrations are spectacular.


The Kenyans swept the top four spots in the men's event at the 2015 world championships in Beijing, but the Americans have a shot at breaking up the medals on both the men's and women's side in Rio.

The Skinny Mazungo

With 60 meters and one final hurdle to go in the Paris Diamond League 3,000-meter steeplechase, American Evan Jager held a 10-meter lead over Jairus Birech of Kenya. He was poised to make history. No American had ever won a Diamond League race in the steeplechase, and it appeared he was going to be first non-African born runner to break 8:00. Instead, he clipped the final hurdle and fell. He was passed in the final 50 meters and just missed 8:00, running 8:00.45 but breaking his own American Record.

In the mid-2000s, Australian Craig Mottram did his best to mix it up with Kenyans on the European Circuit, winning a few races and earning the respect of the East Africans. They even had a nickname for him: The Big Mazungo. Mazungo is a Bantu language term that means "white man." After Jager's fall in Paris, the Kenyans shook his hand and applauded his effort. On Twitter, American cross country champion Chris Derrick gave Jager a nickname: The Skinny Mazungo. At 6-foot-2 and 140 pounds, it fits.

If he can finish in the top three in Rio, he'd be the first Olympic medalist for the U.S. since Brian Diemer won bronze in 1984.

The women weren't given their chance for a while, but now they're center stage

There's a Skinny Mazungo on the women's side, too; Emma Coburn, a tall runner from Colorado, is the best American ever. She set the American record of 9:10.76 in May and has a chance to medal on Monday morning. It would be the first ever medal for the U.S. in the event -- the event was non-existent until 2008, when the Olympics finally brought on the event to keep up with the times.

Coburn was fifth at the 2015 world championships and could be even better on Monday. Team USA has yet to win a medal in the distance events in Rio, and Coburn could be the first to bring home some hardware.