For the first time in the history of the junior women’s race, Kenya failed to provide an individual medallist as fierce rivals Ethiopia produced a clean sweep at the 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
Meselech Melkamu lived up to her pre-race favourite billing and with Aziza Aliyu and Mestawet Tadesse following her home, there was a comprehensive victory for the Ethiopian team. Kenya have provided all three medallists on three occasions but they never looked likely to do so at the Park Van Laeken in the Belgian capital.
In wet and very windy conditions, the Ethiopians dampened Kenyan spirits further with an excellent team display that showed patience and then clinical execution. The race was over almost immediately that the Ethiopian trio kicked for home and the Kenyans must now be asking themselves just what they can do prevent their African rivals becoming a permanently unstoppable force.
Tanzania's Makula makes a show
The championships got underway with this three-lap 6km event and the the Kenyans were soon sprinting to the front with Nelly Jepkurui and Everline Kimeie prominent, but Tanzanian Farida Makula then became a focal part of the race.
Her country has never taken a medal, individual or team, in the race and that was a record she wanted to end as the 16-year-old surged to the front and opened a gap on her African rivals, who were closely packed in the race for valuable points.
Makula completed the first of three circuits in 6:45 but her left shoe came flying off as she set off on the second lap and her lead looked certain to go as she went very wide to avoid the muddiest sections around a bend soon afterwards.
Close Kenyan and Ethiopian packing
Close packing meant Kenya were slightly ahead of Ethiopia in the team battle at this point but as the lap continued the Ethiopians began to figure more prominently. Makula was still trying to set the pace at the front but gone was the substantial lead as four Ethiopians and two Kenyans surrounded her, while Hitomi Miyai was chasing for Japan, who have a fine record of team medals in this race.
Others were working their way back into contention as the lead pack increased to nine and then 11 as the pace slowed with a 7:13 second circuit with Asian junior cross country champion Guiyang Bao another trying to prevent total African domination.
Melkamu shows her intent early on
Melkamu, fourth last year, briefly showed in front after 4.5km but the pack remained closely bunched, perhaps too closely as Ethiopian Yenealem Ayano pushed Jebichi Yator out of the way, which brought strong words from the Kenyan.
With one lap to go, Ethiopia had taken over the lead in the team stakes but it remained close until the final circuit saw the green vests stamping their authority on proceedings. Kenyan junior champion Chemutai Rionotukei was giving her all to prevent a cleansweep for the Ethiopians but she had little support by now.
With less than a kilometre to go, the Ethiopian trio of Melkamu, Aliyu and Tadesse kicked away and the race was over as a team contest. It also appeared over as far as the individual champion was concerned for although Aliyu was on the shoulder of Melkamu the favourite looked in control.
Ethiopian team perfection
With around 300m to go, Melkamu found another gear and she soon moved away from her team-mates as she went on to win by five seconds (20:48). Aliyu took silver (20:53) with Tadesse getting the bronze (20:56), as Workitu Ayana moved her way up to fourth (20:59) as Ethiopia took team gold with the minimum 10-point score.
Only Kenya, in 1993, have ever produced a ‘Perfect 10’ in the race when Gladys Ondeyo, Pamela Chepchmuba and Sally Barsosio took the individual medals. Barsosio went on to take the senior World 10,000m title four years later, so you knows, will Melkamu be on the podium in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics Games?
Although looking strong, Melkamu admitted: “It was a very tough and demanding race. Although the course was easier and less hilly than Lausanne last year my rivals made it a very difficult race to win. We tried to shake off the other countries from the start but we were unable to because they ran so well.
“I was still feeling strong and I was concerned the other athletes were still pushing so that is why I decided to make a burst and I am very happy it paid off with a gold medal.”
Runner-up Aliyu, who was 12th last year, found the mud and cold air difficult to handle but still gave a fine performance with Tadesse three seconds adrift.
Despite a perfect score, it was not the biggest winning team margin in the event as when Barsosio led Kenya to victory in 1994 they had the first three plus the fifth placer and their 11-point tally was 35 better than the Ethiopians.
Senior dominance to come?
But now Ethiopia are the force in the age group with five team wins in seven years during which time their individual tally has been three gold, two silver and three bronze.
Two of those gold medallists, Dibaba and Kidane, today later made the podium in the senior 8km, so Melkamu has high hopes of following in their foosteps.
Ethiopia and Kenya have shared the top two team places in 10 of the last 11 years but Japan also maintained their excellent record as they took bronze once more. Only three times in the history of the event have they failed to get a team medal and Miyai was well supported by world youth 3000m bronze medallist Yuko Nohara in another fine display by the Asians.
The USA, featuring twins Amanda and Kathleen Trotter, were fourth as the Russians led the European challenge in fifth.
Last year’s bronze medallists Morocco failed to figure highly, with world youth 3000m champion Siham Hilali struggling in the mud as she admitted her spikes were too short.