General News Fukuoka, Japan

Men's Long Race, Fukuoka - Bekele's makes it ten but then suggests no more!

Kenenisa Bekele signals his tenth World Cross Country gold (Getty Images)Kenenisa Bekele signals his tenth World Cross Country gold (Getty Images) © Copyright

As Kenenisa Bekele strode the last few yards to the finishing line of the long race at the 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships here at the windswept Seaside Park in Fukuoka, he held up both hands in front of himself and, without breaking stride, counted out numbers 1 to 10.

A little while later, his 18th World Championship gold medal hanging around his neck, Bekele then declared that, in all probability, he had just counted himself out of racing in the event ever again.

"I cannot achieve anything new," Bekele said after completing his fifth consecutive double of 4km and 12km senior World Cross titles.

"I am leaning towards not competing at the World Cross Country any more," he said, explaining that he had made his mind up in the moments immediately following his latest victory.

"I do not want anyone to think that I will not run again next year because the event is being staged in Kenya. But I have been racing at this event for six years now, and I want to step aside and make way for my young Ethiopian team mates who are coming through."

The young man - he is only 23 - looked serious and stern as he made the declaration of his retirement from the branch of the sport that he has dominated since taking the junior title, and then a silver medal against the seniors in the 4km race in a single weekend in Ostend in 2001.

The announcement was a true shock, coming at such an early stage of his career, and if his threat is carried out, it means that Paul Tergat's record of five consecutive World Cross titles at 12km will remain only equalled by Bekele, while his own achievement of five 4km and 12km doubles can never be matched.

Kenyans successfully regroup

Bekele had covered the course today in 35:40, his winning margin eventually 3 seconds from team mate Sileshi Sihine, the World 10,000m silver medal winner who had taken a tumble in the previous day's 4km race. The bronze medal went to the Japan-based Kenyan, Martin Mathathi (35:44), who down the home straight outsprinted Eritrea's Zersenay Tadesse, who had worked so hard in the last couple of kilometres to try to break Bekele and win himself a medal.

Tadesse could at least take consolation in leading his Eritrean squad to the team silver medals behind Kenya (who closed in their scoring four in 10th place), and thus, perhaps surprisingly, beating Ethiopia, who took bronze.

That bronze medal may look out of place in Bekele's otherwise glittering collection of golds, which following his victory here at 4km on Saturday now numbers 18 World titles, senior and junior, breaking the previous record of 17 held by Paul Tergat.

But while the World Cross double may not any longer be a challenge available to Bekele, setting the all-time record of six consecutive 12km wins by winning in a year's time when these championships are staged in Kenya could be a formidable enough test.

Bekele did not think so. "Whether it is in Kenya or any other country, Kenya take their best team to every competition," Bekele said.

But there is no doubt that the Kenyans are regrouping some of their former strength in distance running, as today's regaining of the team title which they once won for 18 years in succession demonstrates. And while Bekele was able to polish off all his opposition here as he accelerated through the park's cherry blossom on the final circuit of the race's six laps, this was not the dominating performance which we had seen from him last year in St Etienne/St Galmier, nor in 2004 when no one was able to stay with the Ethiopian's strength through the Brussels mud.

Weather challenges even Bekele

Fukuoka offered a different set of problems for the champion. The morning's deluges had only dampened the circuit, but the rain had been blown away by some powerful gusting winds. It was not only the flags which were at full stretch from their masts, but even the thick, wooden flag poles themselves were bending in the wind.

It meant the runners had to face the full force of the wind at the end of each lap, as they ran the 500-metre stretch past the grandstands and headed towards the main climb on the circuit. The conditions saw the early leaders bending their heads and their bodies as they leant into the wind, and it kept the leading group in a more tightly packed bunch than you would normally expect to see.

With the pace modest, through 5km in 14:38, there were 33 runners all within 1sec as they headed through 6km in 18:03.

It was into the eighth kilometre - the second half of the fourth lap, run into the wind - that the racing really started. While the "split" time was unexceptional (a 3min 8sec kilometre), someone was clearly putting the boot in, as the leading group was broken apart, and the race for medals was whittled down to just seven men - two Ethiopians, three Kenyans and three Eritreans.

Running mainly into the wind, they covered the 10th kilometre in 3min 26sec (10km: 29:56), with the rest of the field now scattered behind them like multi-coloured confetti. Bekele's decisive break came on the down slope off the last big hill, yet for once the gap to his rivals did not develop. Tadesse, last year's silver medallist, and Sihine were still in contact.

With the wind at his back, Bekele set sail for home, but it was not until he was within the last 150 metres that he finally built up a comfort zone, with a lead of more than a couple of strides. As Tadesse, tiring from his earlier exertions, faded, so Mathathi, who is signed to the Suzuki track team, motored through, and it took all of Sihine's last vestiges of reserves to hold the Kenyan off for silver.

Yet following Bekele's statement, a race which had delivered a landmark achievement in the sport may come to be remembered for creating more questions than it answered.

Steven Downes for the IAAF