Mourhit gives best possible reward
Sean Wallace-Jones for IAAF
25 March 2001 Ostend - In a masterful show of strength and resistance, Belgiums Mohammed Mourhit gave the Belgian organisers of the World Cross Country Championships the best possible reward for their efforts as he successfully defended the world cross country title he won in Vilamoura last year, after running the last lap alone ahead of the rest of the field.
The Belgian Federation, aided by the organisers of the Ivo van Damme Memorial meeting and Belgian authorities, had stepped into the breach less than three weeks earlier when the original venue, Dublin, had to be changed following a decision by the Irish authorities to cancel the Championships due to outbreaks of foot and mouth disease.
Much as Mourhit had predicted in his pre-race press conference, it was very much a race of tactics rather than speed with a closely-bunched pack that only started to break up around the halfway stage.
Most of the early running was made by the Kenyan trio of Kamathi, Ivuti and Kosgei, with Mourhit and El Himer running side by side in the second row, with the leaders pacing themselves gently through the first kilometres.
As El Himer and Lebed dropped back a little, Mourhit spent nearly a lap running in the centre of a tight phalanx of the three Kenyans.
Surprisingly absent from the frontrunners as the race progressed was one of the pre-race favourites, Kenyan John Korir, the winner of the Kenyan National Cross Championships, who never made a serious showing throughout the race.
An exultant crowd watched as Mourhit broke away from the other leaders, Kenyans Paul Kosgei, Charles Kamathi and Paul Ivuti, Portugals Paulo Guerra, Driss El Himer from France and Sergey Lebed (UKR) 27 minutes into the race, on the penultimate lap of this muddy, twisting circuit laid down in the grounds of the Wellington Hippodrome.
Kosgei stayed on Mourhits heels for another few hundred metres, but as the pair approached the long back straight on the penultimate lap Mourhit powered slowly away building up an untouchable lead that would take him across the finish line a good sixty metres ahead of the next fastest finisher.
In the end, it was the battle for second place that held much of the drama of the final stages. Lebed, who had been hanging on in the rearguard of the leaders made a final surge in the last two hundred metres to cross the line a few strides ahead of third-placed Charles Kamathi, with Paulo Guerra finishing just out of the medals in fourth place.
Mourhits victory was the first successful Belgian defence of the title in the history of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and came just two weeks after he won the silver medal over 3000 metres at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon, an event he entered as a late sped test before the World Cross Country Championships.
Lebeds silver medal also made this the first time that two European entrants had made it into the medals since 1984, when the great Carlo Lopes of Portugal was followed across the line by Tim Hutchings of England and Steve Jones of Wales.
Speaking after the race, Mourhit, who was grimacing as he left the finish line, confessed that he had been in a great deal of pain in his right ankle, sprained a couple of days before his return to Belgium from altitude training in Ifrane.
"It was still hurting me on Friday when I arrived, but I didnt really want to say anything about it then," he said. "I was afraid of giving some confidence to my opponents."
"It was painful in the last stages of the race, but it help up and that was the most important thing.
"I tried to run the race as easily as possible; with the mud and wind it was not easy, but it was great responsibility for me to defend this title for Belgium and doubly so here in Ostend."
Surprise silver medallist Lebed, who has been spending most of the past three years living and training in Verbania in the Piedmont region of Italy, put his success down to his great finishing peed.
"People think that I like to run in the mud," he laughed, "but that is not true at all. I made it because I really can finish fast.
"During the coming season I will be concentrating on the 5000 metres and I am hoping for a medal in Edmonton."