21 March 2007Mombasa, KenyaWhen we talk about the men's senior race at the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Mombasa, Kenya (24 March), one name of course dominates - BEKELE!
When he began his emergence as the world’s preeminent distance runner six years ago, Kenenisa Bekele, then still a teen, was oft described as a shy, quiet type. But he’s hardly shied away from making history.
Since becoming the first to ever win both the short and long course titles at the 2002 World Cross Country Championships, the Ethiopian has continued adding chapters to his own still-growing body of historical work. Four more successive double gold performances in the World Cross Country have since followed, along with, of course, a slew of World records, and Olympic and a pair of global titles on the track, and his distinction last year at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow where he became the first man to win global titles across all surfaces.
As the world’s athletics attention shifts to the sunny climes of Mombasa this weekend, Bekele will yet again be chasing history. And little evidence has been produced to suggest that Bekele, now a worldly 24, and certainly no longer that shy teenager the world discovered in Dublin half a decade ago, will not succeed in becoming the first to ever win six successive 12km titles.
His road - at the time still uncertain - to Mombasa began in Edinburgh in early January where he effortlessly demolished and demoralised the strongest cross country field assembled this year. Seemingly bored, his only real competition was the piercing wind that pounded the Scottish capital that afternoon. Much the same was again illustrated a week later in Seville where he, along with his younger brother Tariku, dispensed with another strong field.
Apparently finished with cross country for the season, his focus shifted to the indoor track where a world leading 7:30.50 for 3000m and a 4:49.99 World best over 2000m indicated that he was certainly in as good of shape as he’s ever been, prompting him to reconsider his decision to never again compete at the World Cross.
Mosop faces unenviable task
The world’s best want to compete against the world’s best, which is why many of Bekele’s challengers on Saturday had urged him throughout the winter to put his streak of five successive titles on the line. That includes Moses Mosop, the 21-year-old who has taken on the unenviable task of leading his nation’s charge against the mighty Ethiopian, who was won 27 straight cross country races.
Mosop, the bronze medallist at 10,000m at the 2005 World Championships, emerged victorious from the always brutal Kenyan Trials to become the standard bearer as his nation plays host to the world’s best for the first time. If home course advantage can amount to anything in the race to unseat Bekele, it will be put to the test this weekend as more than 20,000 spectators are expected to line the course on Saturday.
He’ll be joined by Gideon Ngatuny, second to Mosop at the Trials and second behind Richard Matelong - also on the squad - at the national championships. But with only two members from last year’s gold medal winning team - Simon Arusei and Hosea Macharinyang - on the slate in Mombasa, hopes to return to the top podium step are guarded at best.
Edwin Soi, another young Kenyan rising star, could be a factor as well. The runner-up at both the 3000m and 5000m at last September’s World Athletics Final, the 21-year-old produced a solid cross country campaign over the winter, with wins in Fuensalida, Spain, and Le Mans, France, and a runner-up finish in Huesca, Spain, before finishing sixth at the Kenyan Trials.
Bekele will lead a strong Ethiopian squad, who are hoping to bounce back after their disappointing third place team position last year. Would it not be for the long shadow cast by his older brother, Tariku Bekele would figure prominently among the leading contenders for overall honours. The bronze medallist in the junior race last year, the younger Bekele produced a pair of solid outings this winter, but in his most recent, he was a distant fifth at the national championships, won by 19-year-old Tadesse Tola. Earlier in the season, Tola had strong outings at the Belgian CrossCup races in Brussels and Hannut, where he finished third in each. Sileshi Sihine, last year's long course runner-up, returns as well after a pair of outings to his credit this season, including an overwhelming victory in Elgoibar, Spain, in January.
Tadesse, the Eritrean flag bearer
Another formidable squad will be Eritrea, second in the long course team race last year, led by Zersenay Tadesse, the reigning World Road Running champion. Fourth last year and the silver medallist the year before, the 25-year-old will be counting on a trio of his 2006 teammates who all finished in the top-10 last year to keep the pressure on Ethiopia - Yonas Kifle, Ali Abdallah, and Tesfayohannes Mesfen.
In 2006, the first ten to reach the line hailed from these three countries; a different outcome this year will prove to be a major surprise.
Ugandans, Tanzanians and Qataris...
Leading the ‘outsider’ charge are strong contingents from a pair of Kenya’s neighbours, Uganda and Tanzania. Boniface Kiprop, fourth over 10,000m at both the Athens Olympics and 2005 World Championships, leads the Ugandan squad, joined by Moses Kipsiro, the 10,000m African champion. This season, Kipsiro took a close win in Belfast and was narrowly beaten in a photo finish in LeMans.
Tanzanian hopes will be led by cross country, track and road veterans John Yuda, a two-time World Half Marathon Championships bronze medallist, and Fabiano Joseph, the 2005 World Half Marathon champion Fabiano Joseph, who was second in Belfast and a solid fourth in Edinburgh.
Qatar, fourth in the short course and sixth in the long course team races a year ago, could play a role in the team battle again, manned by a full slate of former Kenyans, led by Abdullah Ahmad Hassan, marathoner Mubarek Hassan Shami, and Nicholas Kemboi.
But all eyes, as well as all expectations, will clearly be focused on Bekele, who has managed to make history in each of his five previous appearances at these championships. We can hardly expect anything less on Saturday afternoon in Mombasa.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
TEAMS AND RESERVES
Teams of no more than twelve (12) athletes can be entered in the race. Nine (9) athletes will be allowed to start in each race, six (6) of whom will score.
Junior Men, Senior Women, Junior Women
Teams of no more than eight (8) athletes can be entered in all races. Six (6) athletes will be allowed to start in each race, four (4) of whom will score.
Junior athletes (i.e. athletes who are 18 or 19 by 31 December 2007) can compete in any race. However, Junior athletes cannot compete in both Junior and Senior Races.
Youth athletes (i.e. athletes who are 16 or 17 by 31 December 2007) can compete only in the Junior Race.