After their team's triumphs on the track in Paris last summer, next weekend’s 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium (20/21 March) will be another chance for Ethiopia to prove itself as the world’s top long distance running nation.
Last year in Lausanne, the Ethiopians won four of the six individual gold medals on offer and two of the team titles, but with many of the current squad of thirty-two athletes "been there and seen it all before", the nation is already looking forward to a possible clean sweep of the individual gold medals and perhaps more team titles.
However, according to Endalk Kelemwork, Technical Director of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), the challenge is too fierce this time around to even contemplate such an ambition. "I think we will have stiffer competition this time around," he said, "however, we will be prepared for better results in Brussels."
Under the astute leadership of National team head coach and 71-year old "Father of Ethiopian Athletics" Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre, a strong national team has been built with which Ethiopia hopes to dominate the world for some time.
The cream of the Ethiopian squad for Brussels is made up of six Athletes. Kenenisa Bekele, Werkinesh Kidane, Tirunesh and Ejigayehou Dibaba, Sileshi Sihine, and Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who are all 22 years or under. Among them they have won four medals (two gold, one silver, and one Bronze) at the Paris World championships, and six medals (four gold, one silver, and one bronze) in Lausanne last year.
World 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele will bid for a third successive short and long course double in Brussels. The 5000m World indoor record holder, who was selected for the championships without having to run in the trails, confirmed that "I am ready to run and win both races in Brussels.”
The 21-year old believes that he is ready for "everyone" in Brussels. "Everyone will be running to win in Brussels," Bekele said. "Kenenisa is ready for everyone and he does not prepare for individuals. I run my own race and if there was a challenge, I expect even more competition from my own countrymen like Sileshi [Sihin] and Gebregziabher [Gebremariam] in Brussels than anyone else."
World championships 10,000m Bronze medalist Sileshi Sihine will be looking to do better than his seventh place finish in Lausanne last year. He has been in electrifying form of late on the cross country circuit this season most notably beating the Kenyan duo of Eliud Kipchoge and Paul Tergat in the Great North Cross in Newcastle, England. The current All-African and Afro-Asian Games gold medallist believes that his time has finally come to win a major international honor. "Result is God's only," says the deeply-religious youngster. "Everyone wants to win in Brussels, but I want to push to the maximum."
Completing the 12km Senior Men's line-up will be last year's bronze medallist Gebregziabher Gebremariam, 23-year old Yibeltal Admassu, 2001 World 10,000m fourth placer, Ketema Nigussie and Tibebe Yenew..
Kidane hopes to make history too!
Werknesh Kidane also hopes to enter the history books by becoming only the second woman in the history of the cross country championships besides Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan to win two individual titles in the same edition of the championships.
It has been a rewarding two months for Kidane, who has looked invincible after recovering from injury earlier on the year. In Spain this winter she won four cross country races, and a fortnight ago in Addis Ababa, achieved a unique short and long course double at the 21st East African Cross Country Championships.
However, to win both races, Kidane will need to get past Britain's former World 8km long course champion Paula Radcliffe among other challengers, which the 21-year old is relishing. "It makes me happy to run against many world class runners. I am looking forward to the challenge against her and the other runners and with the help of God, I am ready to get a good result in both races."
Kidane is not new to running the double having won last year's 8km race and finishing second to Kenya's Edith Masai in the 4km last year. However, the diminuitive runner says that the challenge will be more difficult this time around. "Last year, the weather was great in Lausanne," she said. "From what we hear, it rains in Belgium this time of the year, which will make the course more difficult."
The Dibaba Sisters - another safe bet
Ethiopia is also looking to the Dibaba double act- sisters Tirunesh and Ejigayehou. While the former surprised many by picking the World 5000m outdoor title in Paris last summer, it is the form of elder sister Ejigayehou that has really caught the eye.
After finishing a disappointing ninth in the women's 10,000m in Paris, Ejigayehou went on a rampage picking up gold in the 10,000m in the 8th All-African Games in Abuja, Nigeria and the 1st Afro-Asian Games in Hydrabad, India.
On the cross country circuit, she won the ‘L Cross Internacional Zornotza’ in Amorebieta, Spain and after finishing second to Kidane in the 4km in Addis Ababa two weeks ago, she believes that she is ready for bigger things in Brussels.
"I think the competition will be stiff, but I have prepared well and hope to run well," says E. Dibaba, who will run in the longer course in Brussels. "I am ready for anyone who is going to run against me in Brussels. I do not feat anyone."
Younger sister Tirunesh, meanwhile, will hope to transform her junior title in 6km last year to senior success this time around. "It will be much difficult than my win last year that is for sure," she said. "But I think, if we [Ethiopians] run together and for each other again this year, we will win the title."
She finished third in Addis Ababa two weeks ago, but believes that her defeat then was a false alarm. "I competed here in the 8km. The race was difficult for me because I had just returned from overseas (she finished second in the 3000m Indoors in Birmingham). But now, I am back to my normal training regime and have adjusted very well."
Junior Men - erasing last year's disappointments
Kelemwork expects medals from the juniors this time around despite selecting virtually the same team again this year. "Last year, we had problems sending our junior Athletes," he recalled. "After visa problems, the Athletes arrived at midnight before their race day and did not even have dinner. After the problems they had, we did not expect much last year and were not disappointed when they did not get results." Overall, second team – with three top eight place finishes.
Melkamu - The next Tirunesh Dibaba?
In the Women's category, Meselech Melkamu will lead the challenge as she hopes to show why many regard her as the next Tirunesh Dibaba. The 17-year old now has two national championships at the junior 6km after impressively winning gold at the 21st East African Cross Country Championships in Addis Ababa two weeks ago, and says that she hopes for better fortunes in Brussels next weekend.
"Last year (in Lausanne), I made a costly mistake by leading from the front for larger parts of the race, but this year, I have learned from my mistake. I think with the help of God, I might think of the medals this year."