As he built a sizeable lead some 20 minutes into the men’s race on Mombasa’s picturesque seaside Golf Course, at the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Kenenisa Bekele appeared to be kicking into cruise control en route to his sixth straight World Cross Country title. But then the weekend’s most unpredictable and daunting variable – the stifling heat and humidity that makes Kenya’s Indian Ocean so inviting – reared its ugly head.
Less than five minutes after he was apparently dropped by the mighty Ethiopian, Eritrea’s World Road Running champion Zersenay Tadesse not only made up the gap, but went on to pummel past Bekele to produce what will certainly be remembered as the biggest upset of these World Cross Country Championships.
Tadesse, who has made a career of chasing Bekele since his emergence among the world’s elite three years ago, stunned the crowd not only as he fought back to catch Bekele, but stirred its imagination as well when he confidently strode by.
Left in the Eritrean’s wake, an unlikely picture of Bekele emerged, one of a runner broken, with simply nothing in reserve to fight back. Unable to summon his trademark sprint, Bekele looked drained and confused as he watched Tadesse pull away before finally succumbing to the (33 C. with 73 % humidity) conditions and walking off the course some 800 metres before the finish, to end his cross country race win streak at 27. As two medics carrying a stretcher approached, Bekele motioned them away. Later it was confirmed that he struggled with stomach pains in the middle part of the race.
While Bekele’s dramatic departure from the race was a shock, it can’t take away from the powerful performance displayed by Tadesse, the Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist who was clearly prepared for everything these championships would throw at him, be it the heat or the opposition.
“I feel happy and proud for all Eritreans,” said the 25-year-old, who has single-handedly led an athletics renaissance in his country. “I’m very happy and have no words to express my feelings.”
Tadesse, who trains part of the year in Spain, said that preparation there last year helped him for the conditions here. “I trained quite a bit in heat similar to this,” he said. Tadesse said he didn’t feel surprised when he caught up and passed Bekele, and didn’t realize that he had dropped out. “I just didn’t see him,” he said.
The early stages of the 12 km contest began rather cautiously, with several runners taking their turns with the lead. The deep Kenyan squad, much to the delight of the estimated crowd of more than 30,000 who crammed into the venue, performed admirably, but some 15 minutes into the race it became clear that none would be a solid threat for the individual win. Half a lap later, only national champion Moses Mosop was still up to the challenge, before finally dropping off the pace. He nonetheless held on for second, reaching the finish in 36:13, 23 seconds behind Tadesse. Another 24 seconds back was Bernard Kipyego, to claim the bronze.
Surpassing his own expectations, European Champion Mo Farah finished tenth.
‘Cross Country Comes Home’ was the theme of these 35th championships, and the Kenyan men certainly made a strong case with their dominating team performance.
Behind Tadesse, the hosts took spots two through six for a 28 point total, nearly 80 points ahead of runner-up Morocco to easily defend their team title, and a staggering 20th long course team crown overall.
Uganda, led by Martin Toroitich’s ninth place, was third (185 points), to claim their first senior medal at a World Cross Country Championship. The heat took a particularly hard toll on Ethiopia, besides the defending champion, four others didn’t finish, resulting in no score in the team battle, and no team medal for only the second time since 1992.
Underscoring the difficult conditions, 29 of the 134 starters did not finish the race.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
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Places / Prize*
1st 30,000; 2nd 15,000; 3rd 10,000; 4th 7000; 5th 5000; 6th 3000
1st 20,000; 2nd 16,000 3rd 12,000; 4th 10,000; 5th 8000; 6th 4000
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