Who will succeed Britain’s Paula Radcliffe as the queen of the country? Most people’s tip to win the women’s long-course (8km) title at the 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne-La Broye, Switzerland this weekend is Alice Timbilil of Kenya.
Timbilil was only 16th in the junior race when Radcliffe was winning her first senior world cross crown in Ostend in 2001. Now, still only 19, Timbilil starts favourite following victory in the Kenyan trials and Cinque Mulini race in Italy earlier this month.
Radcliffe has rejected the opportunity to chase a hat-trick of world cross victories in order to focus on training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the Flora London Marathon on April 13.
With other recent champions such as Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami and Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan also missing, Timbilil has a great chance to become the first Kenyan to win the women¹s long-course title since Hellen Chepngeno in 1994.
Despite her age, Timbilil is certainly not short of international competition, having placed 14th in the Sydney Olympic 10,000m final at the age of 17.
The youthful Timbilil’s biggest challenger in Lausanne on Saturday could be the experienced Deena Drossin of the United States. Drossin finished runner-up to Radcliffe at last year’s championships in Dublin and is in good form after having recently won her sixth US cross country title and set an American 15km record of 47:15.
Drossin is aiming to become the first American to win the long course title since Lynn Jennings won her third straight race in Boston in 1992.
Drossin is supported in the US team by South African-born Colleen de Reuck, 38, who will hope to get on the podium again following her bronze medal in Dublin last year. While last year’s fourth-placer, Miwako Yamanaka of Japan, is entered in the long and short course races.
But Timbilil is hardly the only Kenyan gold medal shot, for she is joined by Pamela Chepchumba, Jepkorir Aiyabei and Magdaline Chemjor in her national team for the long-course race.
Compared to their countrymen, Kenyan women are relative newcomers on the international distance-running scene. They did not start winning medals in the senior women’s races at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships until the early 1990s.
But in Switzerland this weekend Kenyan women could win both senior women’s titles.
While Timbilil starts favourite in the long-course race, her team-mate, Edith Masai, is the defending champion in the short-course (4km) event.
Masai turns 36 on April 4 but has only been training seriously since 1999, when she split from her husband and had to find a way to support her son.
Masai worked as a prison warder, but as a former 800m silver medallist at the Kenyan secondary schools’championships she knew she had the potential to make a living as an athlete. Last year¹s world cross victory in Dublin earned her US$34,000, for example.
She has also shown superb form on the track, winning over 5000 metres in Rome and Stockholm last year and setting an African 3000m record of 8:23.23 behind Gabriela Szabo of Romania and Radcliffe in Monaco.
Masai’s closest rival in the short-course race on Sunday could be Ethiopia’s Werknesh Kidane, runner-up behind Masai last year in Dublin and the gold medallist in the junior women¹s race at the 1999 IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Look out too for Tirnuesh Dibaba, who beat Kidane at the Ethiopian trials recently and won silver in the junior race in Dublin last year. Amazingly, Dibaba, who was born in 1985, is also eligible for the junior women¹s race.
Kenya also boast Isabella Ochichi, the short-course bronze medallist from last year, and Viola Kibiwot, the junior champion of the last year two years. Ochichi beat Masai at the Kenyan trials recently.
Vivian Cheruiyot, junior gold medallist three years ago and bronze winner last year, was also on the original Kenyan team but had to withdraw yesterday (26 March) with an injury. Last year’s first non-African in the short-course race, Benita Johnson of Australia, also runs.
Not surprisingly, the contest for team honours will be between Kenya and Ethiopia, in both the women’s long and short-course races, although the United States will be aiming to improve on their surprise long-course team silver from 2002.
Leading the host nation’s hopes in the women’s races will be Anita Weyermann. The 25-year-old Swiss athlete won the 1500m title at the 1994 IAAF World Junior Championships in Lisbon and 3000m gold at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Sydney.
At senior level she won 1500m bronze at the 1997 IAAF World Championships in Athens and at cross country she placed fourth in the short-course race at the 1998 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech and then won the European cross country title in 1999.
Jason Henderson (Athletics Weekly) for the IAAF