The IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz will mark the end of an era, because for the first time since 2001 we will see neither Kenenisa Bekele nor Zersenay Tadese on the medal podium. Those two titans of cross country running dominated this race throughout the noughties but now Bekele is injured while Tadese - as we saw so spectacularly at the Lisbon Half Marathon - is prioritising road racing. Without this pair, there’s never been a better time for a Kenyan victory in the big race.
Ten championships have now passed since an individual Kenyan man won the long race at the World Cross Country Championships, the blue riband event of distance running. That man was Paul Tergat in Belfast 1999. Now a new Paul might be the one to resume that sequence.
Paul Tanui, just 19, will come to Bydgoszcz having won the next toughest race in the world – the Kenyan Championships – by the yawning margin of 30.2 seconds. The progress of Paul Kipngetich Tanui, to give his full name, has been frightening. He was fourth in the junior race in Amman before transferring to Fukuoka where he has thrived in the Japanese corporate system with fast times on the track and Ekiden circuit.
Of course, victory in the trials is one thing, preserving that form to the championships is another and Tanui’s vastly experienced compatriots will know all about that process.
Leonard Komen has finished 2nd-4th-2nd-4th at the past four world championships, as a junior then a senior. Joseph Ebuya was fourth in 2008 and won at Edinburgh in January where Kenenisa Bekele was fourth. Hosea Macharinyang was fifth in 2007. Richard Matelong has Olympic and world steeplechase medals from each of the past three years.
Yet this quartet was all beaten in their trials by Tanui and another 19 year-old, Lucas Rotich. Like Tanui, we know he’s good, but we won’t know just how good until the race unfolds in Bydgoszcz.
Gebremariam leads Ethiopia's charge
The world cross does not seem to be as much of a priority these days for Ethiopia’s men, yet they still ended up with the champion in 2009 through Gebre-egziabher Gebremariam. He is back, but after four big wins before Christmas he lost both his IAAF Permit races in 2010. One of those was to compatriot Hunegnaw Mesfin who also triumphed at the Five Mills on his 21st birthday and may be ready for a breakthrough in Poland after a disappointing 2009.
Last year’s junior winner Ayele Abshero is on this year’s senior team, but there is no Bekele, Sihine, Cherkos, Fikadu or Jeylan. Ethiopia however may have its own Paul Tanui in Azmeraw Bekele. He was a clear-cut winner of the Ethiopian trial race and won the Marrakech half marathon, but at the time of writing we don’t even know how old he is. Clearly he has minimal international experience and that will be a disadvantage.
If any Eritrean is going to take over Tadese’s mantle on the country, it will be his training partner, the tall Samuel Tsegay. He impressed with his fifth place at the World Half Marathon Championships and looks set to climb much higher than his 16th place finish in Amman. The world will be looking at athletes like him who can crack the domination of “KenEth”, and another in that category will be Uganda’s Moses Kipsirio who was so near to winning in 2009. One more returning from that leading pack in Amman is Chakir Boujattaoui (MAR), who has quietly progressed since his eighth place last year.
One day, a man born outside of Africa will cause a sensation and win the World Cross Country Championships again. Bydgoszcz 2010 may be a bit soon for that, so there will be some interest not only in the first finisher from outside of Africa, but also the first European and the first without African heritage.
One in eight of the entrants for this year’s senior race are migrants or transferees from Africa. In this category are the leading Europeans Alemayehu Bezabeh (ESP) and Mohamed Farah (GBR). Farah worked his way through to 11th in the tough conditions at Mombasa 2007 and is targeting the championships for the first time since then.
One European entered who has already defeated the best of Kenya and Ethiopia this year is another Spaniard, Sergio Sánchez. He was world indoor silver medallist at 3000m in Doha, but surely it’s too much to ask for the same sort of result over four times that distance.
The leading European in 2009 was Spain’s Carles Castillejo in 28th place. He is entered again so it looks as if Spain will be the team to beat for the likes of Australia, Britain, France, Portugal, the United States, Japan and Poland. The Poles have one of the most interesting entries, Jaroslaw Cichocki (38). He last competed in the World Cross Country Championships as a junior in 1990. At a time when the possible winner of this year’s race wasn’t even born.
Junior race - Uganda’s Golden Opportunity
There is a possibility that for the first time since 1991, the gold could go somewhere other than Ethiopia or Kenya. The two men who finished ahead of Uganda’s Moses Kibet in Amman are now seniors. Kibet performed impressively against seniors in Seville and Elgóibar then retained his national junior title. Can he become only the fourth Ugandan to win a world gold?
If not, the title could go to a 16-year-old for the first time in a decade. Apart from Kibet, Japheth Korir is the highest-placed returnee from Amman, having finished fifth in 2009. He was fourth in this year’s Kenyan trial which was won by the experienced Charles Kibet, a junior team gold medallist at the last two World Championships. Kenya has now won the last 10 team titles and 20 of the last 21, losing only to Ethiopia in Marrakech 1998.
In Bydgoszcz the Ethiopian team will be spearheaded by Biftu Gashaw and Woldsenbet Debebe who were seventh and eighth in Amman but just sixth and seventh in their own country’s trial race.
Perhaps Eritrea can again upset the Kenyan/Ethiopian duopoly as they did with their team silvers in 2007. They bring back three top 20 finishers from last year including 16 year-old Goitom Kifle.
The junior race can hold a special level of excitement because individual reputations do not count for so much. There’s no telling how good an athlete might be at this stage of their development, though obviously it helps to come from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea or Uganda.
There will be a race within a race to see who can be the first finisher from outside this bloc. In 2009 that honour went to the USA’s German Fernandez who was a brilliant 11th. That might be a bit too much to expect of this winter’s US number one Trevor Dunbar who hails from Kodiak in Alaska, so at least he will be unworried by the much colder conditions Bydgoszcz will provide in comparison with 2009. Another used to the cold will be Norway’s Sondre Nordstad Moen, a former cross country ski champion who surely will improve on last year’s top European placing of 50th.
Sadly the number of European entrants in this race is falling. Twenty years ago in?Aix-les-Bains, 73 of the 126 finishers represented countries from Europe. In 2010 the provisional total for Europe is half of that including just five scoring teams compared with 12 in 1990. One of those 12 became the last European junior men’s team to stand on the podium. They were the Italians who were led by 18 year-old Stefano Baldini.
Much better placed to challenge for team medals this time round are Japan. Their great strength in depth may pay dividends as that country fields three sub-29 minute 10,000m runners. Traditionally it has been the Japanese junior women who have grabbed team bronzes but actually their junior men were the first to achieve this feat ... in 1987 when the World Championships last came to Poland.
Mark Butler for the IAAF