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Belgian triumph as Mourhit ends Tergat’s five-year reign

Belgian triumph as Mourhit ends Tergat’s five-year reign

19 March 2000 - Paul Tergat's five-year reign as the World Cross Country champion was ended by Belgium's Mohammed Mourhit as he became the first European to triumph since Carlos Lopes in 1985.

Appropriately, the Portuguese legend was on hand to watch Mourhit outsprint the Kenyan, who was pushed into third by Ethiopia's Assefa Mezgebu, in the 12 kilometres race.

Even in defeat and seeing his chances of becoming the first man ever to win six consecutive titles denied, Tergat remained dignified. "You cannot win every day," he said.

Victory for Mourhit went some way to fulfilling the prophecy of the great Said Aouita, who once told him that he was capable of running 3:25 for 1500m and holding every world record from 800 to 10,000m. But his career stalled because of an unusual problem. One of his legs is 17 millimetres longer than the other and until that was corrected he suffered a series of injuries.

When the gun fired it looked like the race was going to unfold in its normal fashion as the Kenyan team formed a wall at the front of a large leading pack. That view was reinforced as one-by-one the challengers fell away until when they reached the 10km point in 28min 49sec with only four Kenyans, led by Tergat, Mourhit and Mezgebu remained.

It is since quitting his home country of Morocco to marry Beatrice, his Belgian wife, taking up that country's citizenship in 1997, that Mourhit has emerged as Europe's top distance runner. He was the best placed European at the last three World Cross Country Championships and last year set a European record for 10,000 metres of 26min 52.30sec.

"It was when I set that record I believed I could run with the best runners in the world," said Mourhit, who also won a bronze medal in the World Championship 5000m. "This is a great honour for me to win such an important race as this and to beat a champion like Tergat."

When the group reached the final kilometre it was Tergat who made the first move, followed by Patrick Ivuti, but with Mourhit covering every break. As the runners entered the long home straight, it was clear Tergat was not going to retain his title.

Mourhit then launched a withering kick, a huge grin exploding over his face a few metres from the line as he realised that victory was his. Mobbed by the Belgian team and old friends from Morocco, he disappeared under a scrum of well wishers and journalists. "This is the happiest day of my life," he said.

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