There will be a refreshing change in theme to the senior men’s race at the 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships on the Bisharat Golf Course in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday (28 March). For the first time since 2001, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele will not be the centre of attention. Either Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese will win or there will be a new name on the roll of honour.
The greatest pain felt by Bekele’s domination – six wins over the classic 12km distance in seven years, broken only by Tadese’s triumph in 2007 – has been suffered by Kenya. Although this powerhouse nation has continued to hold the upper hand in the team event, it has not celebrated a long-course individual champion since Paul Tergat notched the last of his five successive wins in 1999.
Are the 10 years of hurt about to end?
Tergat’s record five classic titles - a mark he shared with compatriot John Ngugi - was surpassed in Edinburgh last year by Bekele, who became the first man to win six. The Scottish capital proved a rich hunting ground for Ethiopia as they took a sweep of the individual titles for the first time, and both women’s team titles, leaving Kenya only the senior and junior men’s team gold as consolation.
The greater experience in their squad seems likely to deliver Kenya a 22nd team title in 24 years and this time they might be led home by the individual gold medallist. Leonard Komon, runner-up to Bekele last year, and Moses Mosop, silver medallist behind Tadese in 2007, are obvious contenders but, in Mathew Kisorio and Mangata Ndiwa, they have senior debutants either one of whom could spring a shock.
For Komon, Amman represents his fourth World Cross Country appearance since his debut in the juniors in 2006 brought him the silver medal behind Ndiwa and ahead of third-placed Tariku Bekele. The younger Bekele will have to carry much of the burden left by his brother’s absence, being, at 22, the second oldest athlete in the Ethiopian team and one of two squad members most likely to challenge for the podium.
Komon’s consistency at these championships is impressive, having followed his 2006 runner-up place with fourth in the juniors in 2007 and second in his senior debut in 2008. A victory in the IAAF Permit meeting in Soria, Spain, in November augured well but his bubble burst when he was well beaten at the IAAF Permit meeting in Seville, in January, by Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro and Tariku Bekele. Then, at the Kenyan trials last month, suffering a stitch, he finished 20th and had to rely on the selectors giving him a wild card.
After chasing Tadese home in 2007, running without a shoe for the last 2km, Mosop suffered a career-threatening Achilles injury that summer and did not return to training until October 2008. Just four months after his return, he won the Kenyan trial for Amman, a race which formed part of the IAAF Cross Country Permit series. Emphasising the difficulty of picking a champion for Saturday, the 10-race series has produced 10 different winners this season.
There is a comeback thread running through the Kenyan team as Ndiwa appears in his first World Cross since winning the junior title in 2006, his career interrupted by injury, malaria and typhoid. And nobody in the Kenyan squad will be more aware of the country’s history at the championships than Kisorio, the son of the country’s first medallist at the World Cross Country Championships (bronze, 1983), the late Some Muge. Kisorio underlined his potential for Amman by finishing second to Mosop in the trial.
While Kenya’s squad may possess athletes of an age suggesting experience, whereas Ethiopia’s oldest team member is 24-year-old Gebre Gebremariam, don’t be misled. The 32-year-old Mark Kiptoo is making only his second World Cross appearance and Linus Chumba is making his debut at 29. So far as Ethiopia is concerned, so lacking in solid pedigree is the rest of the squad, the team’s prospects depend heavily on Gebremariam and Tariku Bekele.
Gebremariam, though, has failed to impress at the World Cross in the years since he won the junior title (2002) then, in the senior classic race, placed 3rd (2003) and 2nd (2004). He has warmed up well for Amman, though, winning the Ethiopian trial in which Tariku Bekele was fourth behind Feyissa Lelisa and Tadese Tola.
Tariku Bekele steps up for his senior World Cross debut, representing a big test of endurance for the 3000/5000m track runner. In the junior World Cross he was 6th in 2005 and 3rd in 2006. As yet, his cross country record pales compared to his track performances, which include the 2006 World Junior 5000m gold medal, the 2008 World Indoor 3000m title, and sixth place in the Beijing Olympic 5000m.
The war-horse of the field is Tadese, 27, who will be making his eighth successive appearance in the championships. Thirtieth in his debut in 2002, he made the podium for the first time in 2005 and has been consistently among the frontrunners ever since. In a varied career, he was a national road cycling champion in 2001 and, in 2004, became Eritrea’s first Olympic medallist, taking bronze over 10,000m in Athens. He is the reigning three-time World Half Marathon champion.
At the IAAF Permit meeting in Edinburgh in January, Tadese had to settle for a rear view of winner Abebe Dinkesa, from Ethiopia, and Ndiwa. Only Mosop, Komon, Kipsiro and Saif Saaeed Shaheen, from Qatar, are among the 10 winners on the IAAF Permit meeting circuit this season who are entered. Shaheen, the 3000m Steeplechase World record holder and double World champion (2003/05), returns for a fifth attempt at the World Cross, never having won a medal but having been in contention in each of his three short course and one long-course appearances.
Shaheen’s fellow Qatari, Ahmed Hassan Abdullah, is another experienced campaigner who could take advantage of Kenenisa’s absence through injury. He has run in nine World Cross races at eight championships, highlighted by his long-course bronze in 2005. Eighth in the Beijing Olympic 10,000m and third in October’s World Half Marathon Championships, he has a wealth of experience with which to fight the younger brigade.
The junior men’s race appears to have a clear favourite in 18-year-old Ayele Abshero, runner-up last season and comfortable winner of the Ethiopian trial in Addis Ababa last month. However, such is the strength of the Kenyan squad that Abshero faces a stiff challenge and the almost certain knowledge that Kenya will win a 21st team title in 22 years (the exception was 1998).
Trials winner John Cheruiyot, having been training on breaks from school with 2006 senior World Cross runner-up Isaac Songok and Commonweath 5000m champion Augustine Choge, leads the Kenyan charge while 17-year-old Japheth Korir, the World Youth Games 5000m bronze medallist, is the baby of the team. Intriguing, too, is the entry of Alemu Bekele, who was born in Ethiopia just 7km from the birthplace of Kenenisa and Tirunesh Dibaba but who made his debut for Bahrain this month, winning the Asian junior men’s title in Manama.
Only once in the last 24 years has a non-African finished in the top three junior men – Dathan Ritzenhein (US) was third in 2001 – so the inclusion of two hot middle distance runners from outside the continent is especially fascinating. The US lines up with German Fernandez, who has twice set a World junior indoor Mile best since the turn of the year (3:56.50 and 3:55.02), while the Australia team contains Ryan Gregson, who broke the 29-year-old national junior 1500m record last month (3:37.24).
David Powell for the IAAF
Note - ENTRY LIST:
See 'Related Content' under photograph to download Entry List (pdf) as at 24 March.