Benita Johnson won Australia’s first ever medal at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships here at Parc Van Laeken, and then declared that her stirring performance to take the women’s long race title helped to show distance runners from around the world that the Africans are not unbeatable.
“I just didn’t want to hear the Ethiopian anthem again,” the 24-year-old from Queensland said. “I was determined to make the organisers search through their tapes to find 'Advance Australia Fair'.”
Johnson produced a performance of rugged courage, forcing the pace in the final two-kilometre lap of the 8km race to break away from her last remaining challengers, Ethiopia’s defending champion Werknesh Kidane and her team mate, Ejegayehu Dibaba, to come home around 70 metres clear in 27:17, with Dibaba taking the silver medal in 27:29, five seconds clear of the fading Kidane.
Third team title of the day
Ethiopia took their third team medal of the day, with Kenya claiming silver ahead of an exultant team from Britain, who just 48 hours before the championships had lost their team captain, and seemingly any hope of a medal, when two-time champion Paula Radcliffe withdrew with a hamstring injury.
“Paula has shown us the way to beat the Africans,” Johnson said. “It is really important that people from the rest of the world believe hat they can beat the Africans.
“The Africans all train really hard, and we just have to train just as hard. Anyone can win the race if they have it up here,” Johnson said, tapping her finger on the side of her head.
Coached by Nick Bideau, the partner of former champion Sonia O’Sullivan, Johnson’s gold medal is the culmination of three years of solid progression against the world’s best distance runners at the World Cross. Last autumn, the Australian won bronze at the IAAF Half-marathon World Championship, but it has been at cross-country that Johnson has shown her greatest consistency.
“I’ve had sixth, fourth and fifth place finishes,” she said. “Last year, I was about 20 metres from my first world medal… Losing there was huge motivation for me here.”
Determined run to defeat Kidane
And Johnson’s determination was written all over her face as a leading group of a dozen women set off in the midst of a gale-force rainstorm around the former royal gardens.
Prominent in the leading group with Dibaba, Kidane and Johnson were Kenya’s Alice Timbilili, Lorna Kiplagat, running for the Netherlands, Canada’s Emilie Mondor and Britain’s Kathy Butler.
After heavy overnight rain and the day’s two previous races, the course was becoming increasingly sticky in a number of places, a factor which Kidane found discomforting, but which Johnson relished. “I grew up in Mackay, and did lot of my training as a kid on the beach and on sand hills,” she said. “You learn how to run well when the going’s not so good.”
With the halfway mark passed in 13:47, Kidane was working hard at the front. “I felt I had to take the lead because the pace was not fast and I needed to break up the field,” last year’s World silver medallist at 10,000m explained.
But with the leading group down to four with a lap to run, the decisive move was Johnson’s as the leaders started their long uphill slog away from the grandstands. “I felt with the steep hill going into the last lap that the two Ethiopians girls were starting to tire,” Johnson said.
“I was tired too, but I thought I had to give it a go. I was hurting real bad, but I really wanted that medal.”
Gold is a good place to start
By the time Johnson had crested the rise at the far side of the course, the gap to Kidane was 10 metres and growing.
“It was really tough. It was a good cross-country course, really heavy with some hard hills, a true test of who is the fittest distance runner on the day.”
Johnson came into the race straight from the Australian Olympic track trials in Melbourne, where she won the 10,000m, and clearly is at the top of her form.
“Our country’s never won a medal at the World Cross before,” she said, “and I reckon gold is a good place to start.”