Bekele draws inspiration from previous winners
Phil Minshull for IAAF
Kenenisha Bekele drew inspiration from the three last Ethiopians to win the world junior men's cross country title to take his first gold medal on a global stage.
Assefa Mezegebu, Million Wolde and Hailu Mekonen, winners of the junior titles in 1995, 1998 and 1999 respectively, are all training partners of Bekele and provided him with invaluable advice on how to go one better than the silver medals he won at the 1999 IAAF World Youth Championships over 3000m and at the 2000 IAAF World Junior Championships over 5000m.
"They have all helped me a lot, so has Haile Gebrselassie. We all train very hard when we are together in our European training base in Holland," Bekele said, in a faltering mixture of English and Dutch.
There was nothing hesitant about the way he won his first world title though, pulling away from his solitary challenger Kenya's Duncan Lebo barely halfway into the race and then romping through the mud in a fashion that gave no suggestion to the fact he had 24 hours earlier taken the silver medal in the senior men's short race.
Bekele was to the fore from the gun, initially taking the pace with Kenya's Nicholas Kemboi, as a familiar pack of four Kenyans and three Ethiopians separated themselves from the rest of the 152-strong field. Kemboi and Lebo briefly turned the screw in a bid to shake off their Ethiopian rivals and were successful apart from the iron-lunged Bekele.
Bekele and Lebo broke away on the second of four laps to put distant between themselves and Kemboi while behind them the American pair of Dathan Ritzenheim and Matthew Tegenkamp had run a more measure first half of the race to steadily move up to 4th and 5th.
However, once Bekele put his foot down on the accelerator midway through the third lap neither the energy-sapping mud nor the near-freezing conditions could stop him. Lebo settled for second a long time before the finishing line was reached.
"I always knew I could win," the ultra-confident Bekele said. "Now I feel tired but very happy. This has been a very hard weekend. Some people have already said I looked as though I won the race easily but I can tell you it was not easy. After running yesterday, my legs are very tired," added the winner.
Bekele crossed the line after slogging his way around 7.7km in 25:04, with Lebo eventually coming home 33 seconds later. Despite the distance between them, Lebo felt no sense of disappointment at finishing second for the second consecutive year. "This winter has been very difficult. I had a lot of problems with my left knee and for several months I was running with a lot of pain and getting poor results in Kenyan races. Some days I even missed training. It was only when we were in training camp and a doctor looked at it that it was treated properly," said the man who counts Patrick Ivuti and Charles Kamathi as his training partners.
However after three successive silver medals at world championships, he also won the IAAF World Junior Championships 10,000 silver medal last October in Santiago. He doesn't want to get a reputation as someone who always falls short on the big occasion. "Now the pressure is on me to get a gold soon," he ruefully acknowledged.
Behind the leading pair, Dathan Ritzenheim got the United States' first junior men's medal since Keith Brantley came third back in 1981. In the final kilometre, Ritzenheim realised he had a chance of getting on the podium and surged past Kemboi, who was to finish fourth.
"I came into this race joked about the fact that we had little experience facing the Africans, and were just hoping to beat one of them," the Michigan schoolboy laughed. "I just didn't know what to expect coming into this race so I thought I would just commit myself and go out hard".
Kenya took the team gold medals from Ethiopia but only by the narrowest of margins, 24 points to 25, the highest winning tally in 21 years. Uganda came through strongly in the second half of the race to win the bronze medals for the second year in succession, confirming the breakthrough they achieved in 2000 when they won their first ever world cross country medals.