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Mourhit to defend his crown at home

– Preview of the World Cross Country Championships
K. Ken Nakamura for IAAF

22 March 2001 - Those who witnessed Rui Silva of Portugal winning the 1500m at the 8th IAAF World Indoor Championships in Lisbon were reminded of the significance of winning in front of home fans. This weekend in Ostend, Belgium, in front of his fans, the defending long course World Cross Country Champion Mohamed Mourhit (BEL) will have the chance to defend the title he won a year ago in Vilamoura, Portugal.

Twice in the IAAF era of the World Cross Country championships which began in 1973, an athlete from the host country has won the prestigious men’s long course event. Both times, the athlete who won at home was a defending champion. The pressure on them during days leading up to the Championships would have been unbearable, and it is a testament of their greatness that John Treacy and Carlos Lopes successfully defended their crown at home.

In 1979, a year after winning the World Cross Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, thus becoming the youngest winner of the event, John Treacy of Ireland successfully defended his title in Limerick, Ireland. Treacy, a future Olympic marathon silver medallist, was also the first to successfully defend his crown in the IAAF era. Counting back to the times of the International Cross Country Championships, Treacy was only the second to achieve this feat after Raphael Pujazon in 1947.

In 1985, a year after winning the World Cross Country Championships in Medowland, New Jersey, the Olympic Marathon champion Carlos Lopes of Portugal successfully defended his title in Lisbon, Portugal, thus becoming the first three-time winner in the IAAF era. Can Mohamed Mourhit join two cross country legends to become the third man to successfully defend his title at home?

Keen observers must have noticed the similarity of Mourhit’s preparation leading up to the World Cross Country Championships in the last two years. Last year, as in this year, Mourhit ran both Indoors and Cross Country races, but he did not win any major race until the Worlds. Mourhit ran in the European Indoor Championships in Ghent on February 27, 2000, finishing a close fourth at the 3000m. He lost a last lap sprint battle against three middle distance runners - Mark Carroll, Rui Silva and John Mayock. Three weeks later, he won the World Cross Country Championships.

This year, Mourhit finished second to Hicham El Guerrouj at the 3000m in the World Indoor Championships on March 11. His time 7:38.94, was a national record; he also moved up to 14th in the all-time indoor performer list. The fact that he was second in Lisbon at 3000m without speed training is a testament of his readiness for the World Cross Country Championships. This weekend, two weeks after the World Indoors, Mourhit will attempt to defend his crown, his main focus of the winter season, as he explained at the medallist interview session in Lisbon. However, he is not the only favourite.

His main challengers in Ostend will be the Kenyans, whose team is made up of five runners that finished in the top seven at the last two editions of the World Cross Country Championships. Mourhit’s task may be easier since five time World Cross Country champion Paul Tergat withdrew from the Worlds to concentrate on his preparation for his upcoming marathon debut in London. The task, however, is still formidable, with the likes of John Korir, Paul Kosgei Charles Kamathi and Patrick Ivuti providing stiff competition. Patrick Ivuti and John Korir were fourth and fifth at the 10,000m in the Sydney Olympic Games respectively. Charles Kamathi’s 10,000m personal record (26:51.49), is faster than Mourhit’s European 10,000m record - 26:52.30. In fact, Kamathi finished ahead of Mourhit at the Ivo Van Damme meet when both recorded personal bests.

At the 2000 edition of the World Cross Country Championships, Ivuti and Kamathi finished fourth and seventh respectively in the long course, while John Korir was third in the junior race, and Paul Kosgei was third in the short course. Two years ago in 1999, Ivuti and Paul Kosgei were both second in the long and short course respectively, while Richard Limo was second in the junior division.

Although Assefa Mezgebu, an Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, who finished second to Mourhit last year at the World Cross Country Championships, has run several indoor races in Europe this year, he missed the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships on February 25. His chances at the World Cross Country Championships are not clear.

The European Challenge will most likely come from Paulo Guerra of Portugal and Sergey Lebed of Ukraine, the gold and silver medallist at the European Cross Country Championships in Malmo, Sweden on December 10, 2000. Early during the cross country season, Guerra fared well against the Kenyans, winning in Brussels (on Dec 17, 2000 ahead of Ivuti) and in Legano (January 6 over John Korir). They have also done well in the past World Cross Championships. Guerra was third in 1999, while Lebed was eighth in 2000.

Although it might have lost some of the lustre as the race is missing Sonia O’Sullivan, the 1998 champion, and defending champion Derartu Tulu, one of the most eagerly anticipated race in the Championships is the women’s long course event. It is in this event that Paula Radcliffe is expected to battle Gete Wami, two time World Cross Country Champion for the coveted title. The muddy course expected in Ostend may be an advantage for Radcliffe, for Wami’s wicked kick may not be as effective over such a course. Radcliffe, who has won the heart of many track fans by courageously leading both the 1999 World Championships in Sevilla and the 2000 Olympic Games 10,000m, must be considered as a sentimental favourite for the title. When Radcliffe is in the race, we can count on the honest race, and the best runner of the day will prevail at the end. Her brave front running captures people’s imagination. As Mel Watman wrote in Athletics International after the Olympic Games, "Long after many a medallist from Sydney is forgotten, the vision of Radcliffe’s brave front running will remain." However, many fans certainly want to see Radcliffe wins the World Cross title, for she truly deserves to win, like Ron Clarke truly deserved to win the Olympic title.

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