Just as Kenya dominated the World Cross Country Championships on home ground in Mombasa last year, so Ethiopia is expected to take the majority of medals in the middle and long distance events when it hosts the African Athletics Championships for the first time, beginning here tomorrow.
As Haile Gebrselassie, the most popular athlete in Ethiopian athletics history, put it today, when visiting the Addis Ababa Stadium as it underwent final preparations: “There are very few chances for the rest of the Africans because the Ethiopians are running in front of their own people in the stadium they do their training in every day.”
Free entry is expected to swell the crowd to a near-capacity 25,000 on most of the five days of competition. Gebrselassie, while confirming that he was aiming to run in the 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics, rather than Marathon, at which he is the World record holder, is not competing but he expects to be applauding a succession of home winners.
Defar, Dibaba and (maybe?) K. Bekele lead the hosts
Among those billed to appear are Ethiopia’s so-called ‘Golden Trio’ of the track, comprising Kenenisa Bekele, Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba. Confirmation of their participation was still being awaited amid eve-of-opening day murmurings that Bekele, the World and Olympic 10,000m champion, would not compete.
According to coaching sources, Bekele feels that he is not ready for a 10,000m only four weeks after regaining his IAAF World Cross Country title in Edinburgh. He would prefer to defend the 5000m title he won in Bambous, Mauritius, in 2006 but the coaches are said to be reluctant to change selections at this stage.
Defar, the IAAF world female athlete of 2007, opens her 2008 outdoor season in defence of her African 5000m title. It is hard to see her being beaten, given the extension of last year’s form into this year. She set a two miles world indoor best in January and took a third consecutive IAAF World Indoor 3000m gold in March.
The most likely challenger to Defar is her fellow Ethiopian, Meselech Melkamu, who was runner-up behind the Olympic and World 5000m champion in the World Indoor 3000m. Typical of the Kenyan entry for many events at these championships, Ethiopia’s arch rivals field a weakened team.
Despite ailments during both races, Dibaba emerged from the 2007 World Championships, in Osaka, and the 2008 World Cross Country, in Edinburgh, with gold medals. In Osaka she won at 10,000m after stomach pains forced her to drop back and she triumphed in Edinburgh after falling behind with stitch.
Here Dibaba will be hoping for a trouble-free ride and, as is the case with Defar in the 5000m, her closest challenger is likely to be a compatriot. Mestawet Tufa, having won the 10,000m at the All Africa Games in Algiers in July, dropped out in Osaka but restored her reputation by finishing second to Dibaba in Edinbugh.
Should Kenenisa not line-up in the 5000m, his younger brother, Tariku Bekele, will be charged with the task of keeping the title in the family. He has performed such a feat once already this year, taking his first senior global gold medal in succeeding Kenenisa as World Indoor 3000m champion.
Kenya favoured in Steeplechase, 800m
It is in this event, though, that Kenya appears to have a rare chance of success as stars such as Brimin Kipruto, Ezekiel Kemboi, Eliud Kipchoge and Janeth Jepkosgei give the championships a miss. They field Isaac Songok, who has yet to transfer his Grand Prix form into senior championship success, and Kiprono Menjo, the 2007 All Africa Games runner-up.
Other events in which Kenya may strike back at Ethiopia are in the men’s 3000m Steeplechase, with Richard Matelong, Michael Kipyego and Willy Komen, the women’s 3000m Steeplechase, with Ruth Bosibori, Lydia Rotich and Mercy Njoroge, and the men’s 800m, with David Rudisha and Asbel Kiprop.
The absence of Sudan’s Abubaker Kaki from the 800m – the World Indoor, All Africa Games and Pan Arab Games champion is contesting only the 4x400m – will likely come as a relief to Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, of South Africa. Mulaudzi had to settle for silver behind Kaki in the 2007 All Africa Games and 2008 World Indoor Championships.
Should Kenenisa not line-up in the 10,000m, and given the absence of Osaka runner-up Sileshi Sihine, home hopes would perhaps depend on newly-crowned junior World Cross Country champion and World Junior 25-lap champion Ibrahim Jeilan.
Fasuba the class of the sprint fields
As strong a favourite as any of Ethiopia’s ‘Golden Trio’ would be is Nigeria’s Olusoji Fasuba in the men’s 100m. Fasuba is clearly Africa’s top sprinter, having won the All Africa Games 100m, finished fourth in the World Championships, and won the World Indoor 60m title in the last nine months.
While Ethiopia and Kenya will leave few medals for other nations in the middle and long distance events, Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana and South Africa should dominate the sprints while South Africa and Egypt should be strong in the field. South Africa’s team of nearly 70 athletes should compete with Ethiopia to top the medals table.
David Powell for the IAAF