Phil Minshull for IAAF
23 March 2001 - Ostend - There is an old English music hall song that begins Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside, and although it is unlikely that many of the 36-strong squad of Kenyan runners who will compete in Ostend at the 29th IAAF World Cross Country Championships are too familiar with it, by the end of this coming weekend they are at least likely to share its sentiments.
Kenya will certainly win a lot of medals, some of them will be gold, around the Wellington Hippodrome on Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the world readily concedes that the only real question is How Many?
Kenyan head coach Dan Muchioki believes that his men and women can make a clean sweep of the honours, just like they did seven years ago.
"We are capable of winning all the world titles, just like we did in 1994 in Budapest. I have the strongest cross country squad ever, rich in depth of talent and experience. Any six of the athletes in the senior mens race could be the champion, including Enock Mitei (who will be making his first ever appearance at the championships), who is as strong as a bulldozerjust like what John Ngugi was," commented Muchioki.
The mention of Ngugi brings back memories, not just of his first triumph in 1986, which set off a chain of 12 victories by Kenyan men in the last 15 championships, but of his win in atrocious conditions three years later in the Norwegian town of Stavanger when he skimmed through what seemed to most others to be glutinous calf-deep mud.
The conditions could be similar in Ostend with rain and wind having battered the Belgian coastal town over the last week but usually little distracts Kenyan runners from their task in hand. More recently, Paul Tergat conquered adverse elements in Northern Ireland to win the last of his five consecutive senior mens titles in 1999.
Tergat, despite finishing third in the Kenyan trials last month, has decided to forego these championships but his absence is unlikely to derail the Kenyan train of success. "People may be wondering what will happen to the Kenyan team now but I should tell them that another Tergat will be born," said Kenyan AAA chairman and IAAF council member Isaiah Kiplagat.
Who the New Tergat will be remains open to speculation. It is an open secret that several of the six-man team will make the pace, and possibly sacrifice their own chances of an individual gold medal, in order to ensure that Kenya takes the team title and a fellow Kenyan wins the 12km senior mens long race but who will do the front running and who will be the beneficiary remains a closely guarded secret.
"After a month training together we have chosen who will be the winner," said Charles Kamathi, who was seventh last year.
"We all know who is the strongest at this moment and we all accept the decision but if in the race there are things that are not going so well, then we can change tactics to help someone else," added Kamathi.
John Cheruiyot Korir, the junior mens bronze medallist 12 months ago, won the Kenyan trials last month and might well be the anointed one. Korir has also come home in front in some of the fiercely competitive training runs held during the month long preparation camp at Kaptagat. However, it might also be the turn of Patrick Ivuti, who has been Tergats appointed assistant in the last two years, while still managing to pick up a silver medal in 1999 and finish fourth last year. Reports from Kaptagat suggest that Ivuti has bounced back into stunning good shape after suffering from a mild bout of malaria which restricted him to 30th in the Kenyan trials.
Although the spotlight inevitably falls on the mens 12km race, the last race of the weekend, Kenyans will be to the fore in the five other races. The mens 4km team includes the winner and runner up from last year, John Kibowen and Sammy Kipketer. Both men missed out on selection for the Olympics but that has only succeeded in spurring them on during the winter.
The womens 8km long race sees Kenya represented by one of their strongest teams for several years including Lydia Cheromei, who won the world junior title as a 13-year-old -- and is still the youngest ever winner of an IAAF world titlethe last time the championships were staged in Belgium, when they were held in Brussels in 1991. Cheromei finished fourth last year and ahead of her in the bronze medal slot finished Susan Chepkemei, who is also in this years team along with Leah Malot, who finished sixth last year.
The other returnee to Belgium is Margaret Ngotho, who finished ninth a decade ago and assisted the Kenyan senior women then to their first ever team title. Ngotho this time around goes in the shorter 4km event.
Kenya has had unrestrained success in junior races in recent years and it is unlikely to be halted in the Ostend mud.
Both the junior mens gold and silver medallists from Vilamoura, Robert Kipchumba and Duncan Kipkorir Lebowho incidentally filled the same positions over 10,000 at the IAAF World Junior Championships last Octoberare still eligible and continue to run in the junior ranks. However, Muchioki was also telling people to look out for the much-improved Kiplimo Muneria, who finished 10th in 2000.
The Kenyan junior women can go one better than their male counterparts and the full medal rostrum from last yearVivian Cheruiyot, Alice Timbilil and Jelagat Kibiwotwill be on the start line of the first race of the championships on Saturday.
With windy weather anticipated in Ostend over the next few days, it almost certainly be the Kenyan flag that is flying regularly in the gales.