05 JAN 2012 Preview 5 January 2012 – Edinburgh, Scotland

Bekele to face two Olympic champions and title defender Kipchoge in Edinburgh Cross Country – PREVIEW

Strong return for Kenenisa Bekele in Brussels (Gladys Chai van der Laage)Strong return for Kenenisa Bekele in Brussels (Gladys Chai van der Laage) © Copyright

Edinburgh, ScotlandIt is the first year in ages that there will be no World Cross Country Championships taking place. But at the very beginning of the new year there will not be a long wait for a major Cross Country clash.


The Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross Country on Saturday (7), an IAAF Cross Country Permit Meeting, will fit the bill. The men’s 3Km event can easily be regarded as 2012’s replacement for the World Championships’ race. Edinburgh will indeed most likely see the best quality Cross Country contest of the year. Three Olympic champions – Kenenisa Bekele, Asbel Kiprop, and Brimin Kipruto – will meet Eliud Kipchoge, who had taken the event a year ago in brilliant style.


Besides the men’s 3Km race there will be international team events for the men (8Km) and women (6Km), which will see very strong European fields. In the two junior events (6Km for men and 4Km for women) teams from Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the USA and Europe are involved. BBC One will broadcast all the action from Scotland live on Saturday, starting at 13:00 (local time).


Men’s 3Km - Bekele’s Edinburgh return


Saturday’s 3Km race through the hilly terrain of Holyrood Park will be Bekele’s first Cross Country competition for two years. It was here in Edinburgh in January 2010, where he last competed in Cross Country. Then, the three-time winner (2006-08) of the race – a record - had to be content with fourth place. Among those in front of him in 2010 was third placed Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who he’ll meet again on Saturday. After a series of injuries prevented him from competing Bekele dropped out of the 10,000m final at the World Championships last August. But he then came back with a great victory in the 10,000 m at the Brussels Samsung Diamond League Meeting in September. Now the 29-year-old reigning Olympic Champion at 5,000 and 10,000m, who has not competed since Brussels, hopes for similar success in the cross country.


“I feel very comfortable starting my important Olympic year by competing in Edinburgh,” Bekele said. “Because of all the wonderful Cross Country races I ran there and of course the memories of becoming World Champion in Edinburgh after losing my spike during the race, it feels like coming home to race in Edinburgh against the best in the World.”


He added, “My training is going well and I feel good and ready for the Olympic year.”


While Bekele is without doubt the most successful Cross Country runner ever – a staggering 20 gold medals at the World Cross Country Championships, among them 12 individual wins plus eight team golds - it was Kipchoge who produced a great performance in Edinburgh a year ago. In the 4.2Km race the 5000m silver medallist from the Beijing Olympics took the lead soon after the start and dominated the event. Among those Kipchoge beat were Olympic champions Kiprop (1500m) and Kipruto (3000m Steeplechase). The two Kenyans, who were second and third, will return to Edinburgh as well and will look for an improvement. With Bekele in the mix this could be a fascinating battle – even more so since the distance will be 1.2Km shorter than in 2010. This should increase the chances for Kiprop and Kipruto.


Besides the four Africans three Spanish runners could do well in the 3Km race: Arturo Casado is the reigning European 1500m champion, Manuel Olmedo claimed the continental 1500m indoor crown in 2011 and Juan Carlos Higuero finished third on both occasions.


Strong European men’s squad in team race


Teams from Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States and Europe will compete in a men’s and women’s event. The men’s continental squad looks particularly strong. But both European teams feature the reigning European Cross Country Champion plus a number of athletes who have done very well at these championships. Runners will surely not just have their team placing in mind. It will also be about revenge just weeks after the continental championships.


In the 8Km men’s race the surprise European champion Atelaw Bekele of Belgium will be up against Spaniard Ayad Lamdassem, who had taken silver medals at that competition in 2010 and 2011. Europe’s record gold medal winner Serhiy Lebid (nine gold medals at the continental competition) will be eager to show that he can still beat his continental rivals. The Ukrainian dropped out of the championship race in December. Another one to watch will be Ireland’s Joe Sweeney, who was fifth at the Europeans.


While the men’s team event will take place for the second time in Holyrood Park organisers have decided to have a race with the same format for the women as well, therefore skipping the international women’s race. In the 6Km team event all eyes will be on Fionnuala Britton, the surprise European champion from Ireland who intends to show that her gold medal in Velenje, Slovenia, was no coincidence. Former world-class runner Brendan Foster, one of the initiators of the Edinburgh Cross Country Race and a BBC commentator, is convinced that Britton has a great future: “To have a female Irish European champion at cross country, is the first step in rejuvenating Irish distance running in the post Sonia (O’Sullivan) and Catherina (McKiernan) days. I am sure she'll go on to greater achievements as she moves up in distance. If she beats the best of Europe again (in Edinburgh) and also the Americans then she'll put down an outstanding marker for 2012.”


The 27-year-old Britton will form the European team with Portugal’s Ines Monteiro, Romania’s Roxana Barca and Germany’s Simret Restle plus others. But one of the toughest challenges might come from Great Britain’s team, which will be headed by Gemma Steel who was third in the European championships. Stephanie Twell will also run for Britain while the US will be in the challenge with Sarah Porter and Neely Spence among others.


Jörg Wenig for the IAAF