StEtienne/StGalmier, FranceJust when it seemed that there might be more than a token non-East African challenge for the men's long race title on Sunday 20 March at the 33rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in St Etienne/St-Galmier, France, the assault has been blunted.
No Irish assistance
Even last autumn, Australian Craig Mottram had identified Ireland’s Alistair Cragg as an emerging runner who, like himself, did not seem intimidated by the Africans. That view was endorsed when the Irishman inflicted a rare defeat on an admittedly bereaved and clearly distracted Kenenisa Bekele over 3000 metres on the boards in Boston (the Ethiopian miscounted the laps), so a rematch in happier circumstances between the pair had been eagerly awaited.
That will not now take place, because Cragg has a problem with a nerve in his back, apparently brought on by one long-haul flight too many. He returned to the US after his European Indoor 3000m gold in Madrid when remaining in Europe might have spared him.
However Mottram has every intention of making as big an impact as possible. “For the first time, I am doing the long race only,” said the 24-year-old Aussie.
He reflected on Cragg's absence yesterday (Thursday) when talking of his own championship aspirations, but he does not think that would have made it any easier for him. “It's a pity Cragg is not running, but more white faces would not give me a comfort zone,” he said. “It makes no difference to me. There are plenty of Africans who will be going well at the front.”
Mottram was the first Athens Olympic 5000m finisher to have been born outside Africa. Last year, when he contested both long and short World Cross Country races, he was again the first non-African. On his two previous World Cross appearances, he also headed the rest of the world.
African-born men have won every long race World Cross Country title since 1985, and every team gold since 1980. Since 1984, just one non-African male has medalled at 10,000m in the Olympics, and just two at 5000m. Since the inaugural IAAF World Championships in 1983, Africans have claimed all but four of the available 5000 and 10,000m medals (two in each event).
The 30 fastest people ever at 10,000m are African, and of the 40 men who have broken 13 minutes for 5000m since David Moorcroft was the last British holder of that World record (13:00.41, 1982), only three were born outside Africa.
Most recent of these is Mottram, who knows he will be up against it this weekend when he challenges the aura of invincibility surrounding those who annually charge anew out of Africa. He attributes some of his success to the fact that he did not serve an athletics apprenticeship in which the domination of Africans was permanently in his face.
His international athletics debut was in the 1999 Belfast World Cross Country before that he had been a triathlete, and was spotted in the Australian schools triathlon championships by Nic Bideau.
”That was in 1998,” says Mottram. “I'd been doing triathlons for about four or five years. Nic said I showed promise as a runner. I'd a running background, and was pretty good when I started. The next year, in my first international race and first outside school athletics, I finished 18th at the World Junior Cross Country in Belfast.”
”I didn't even know the Africans were there,” he explains. “I was not constantly exposed to them, or watching them, because I hadn't come up through the ranks in athletics. If you grow up racing Africans and being lapped by them, it makes it very difficult mentally. I got in pretty quickly, and escaped that.”
“They work pretty damn hard to achieve…”
”They're good, but I am not in awe of them. Of course they have all the well documented advantages, lifestyle and altitude. It looks a lot easier for them than it does for us, but they work pretty damn hard to achieve what they do.”
”Their hard lifestyle, and all that running to school for years, gives them a head-start over kids faced with the attractions of TV and computer games as they grow up.”
”I was lucky, growing up. I really enjoyed the outdoor life. I cycled about five kilometres to and from school. Our home was on the coast, with a great river to train along. You could step out the front door and run, swim or ride. I've never had to get in a car to go training.”
”The school I went to, in Geelong, sends all kids when they are 14 to a place called Timbertop. Prince Charles (heir to the British throne) worked there once as an assistant teacher. I absolutely loved it. It's not an African-style training camp as a such, but it's an outdoor life, at 1200 metres altitude, and a year there toughens you up. You have to chop all the wood for fires, to boil hot water, and you are hiking every weekend, and running a lot.”
Lacking the leg speed
He has just completed five weeks at the ski resort of Falls Creek in Australia, with defending women's champion Benita Johnson. "Because I'm just doing the long race, I have been up to 184 kilometres in my peak week. That's my highest ever."
That was the week between his 13:28 track 5000m in Melbourne, confirming selection for the world championships in Helsinki, and the Australian championships in Sydney which he won in 14:01.
"I just speeded up in the last few laps. I'm in good shape, but obviously, with all those miles, I don't have quite the same leg speed. I've only had the two track races."
He has interesting views on training with other Australians and Brits. "Getting together would be great, but when runners from a European background train together, they just smash one another into the ground. The Africans don't give a stuff. They're a different nature. A different culture. They just do the work, and they definitely work hard.
"But you can't just start running 160 kilometres a week. We don't have 10 years of running to school, and farming, fighting, or whatever, so we break down. It takes time to adapt."
Mottram's big breakthrough came last summer at Crystal Palace, as Haile Gebreselassie made his farewell track appearance in Britain. The Ethiopian smashed the UK all-comers' record with 12:55.51, but he was pushed all the way by the cavalier Australian whose 12:55.76 is now fastest by any non-African, with the exception of the doping-convicted German, Dieter Baumann (12:54.70).
This time would have been good enough to win every Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European title with the exception of the 2003 World gold in Paris. "I've shown I can be competitive in a sub-13 minute race," he said. "The goal now is to be competitive at sub 12:50. If I can do that in Helsinki, then you never know. It depends who lines up, but if you can break 12:50, anything can happen."
He has identified around the 4000m mark a problem area, but one which can be fixed in time. "I'm definitely quick enough. I can run under 50 for 400."
He has already earned international respect. In Scotland last year, on Royal Deeside, he claimed several significant scalps. Over an undulating 5000m course, he won from a field which included former double World Cross Country short race champion John Kibowen of Kenya, four-times European champion Lebid, and another Kenyan, Daniel Komen, who holds the World record at 3000m.
Then at New Year, in Madrid, he beat over 10km Paul Tergat, the Kenyan World Half and Full Marathon record-holder.
Last November, he returned briefly to triathlon on Australian soil, at Noosa. He makes light of a switch in disciplines which few elite athletes would even consider: "I think you have to be generally fit enough to do that, then concentrate on track in summer," says the laid-back Mottram, whose mother is Scottish, and whose dad is a former pro footballer with London club Crystal Palace.
His rivals did not make light of his planned appearance. He had hoped to do the elite event: "But at 5.30am on race day, the organisers banned me. I'd to do the men's open, a separate race, and won by three-and-a half minutes. I think they were frightened I might embarrass a few people."
Compulsory cross country background
Mottram, who is doing distance learning by computer in hopes to help out in his father's business. He is articulate and approachable, and seminars he has helped out with have been packed.
Following one in Scotland, when spectators included the country's sports minister, the point was made to her that at Mottram's school, cross-country was compulsory. "Up to 16 miles at the end of winter," he said.
The political debate in Scotland, as elsewhere in Europe, focuses on more physical education on the curriculum for increasingly slothful and unhealthy children.
"I don't want to be getting the blame for kids being forced to do more exercise," says Mottram laughing.
However, even if he is not a role model for children, he could soon be one for a breed of runners who feared Africans would remain out of sight.
Doug Gillon for the IAAF