Ethiopia will start as firm favourites to win both the men's and women's races at the 2002 International Chiba Ekiden Road Relay on Saturday 23 November 2002, which will be held over a 42.195km loop course, that starts and finishes in Chiba stadium.
The men will cover the distance in five stages (10Km, 5Km, 10Km, 5Km and 12.195Km), while the women will cover the same distance in six stages (10Km, 5Km, 10Km, 5Km, 4767Km and 7428Km).
The course is not flat, in fact the final 9Km of the course is undulating, and dramatic lead changes have been seen in the later stages of the race in the past. Last year, Kenya blew a 52 seconds lead in the final stage, and in all there were three lead changes in the final stage, with South Africa finally prevailing.
Sixteen men’s teams from fourteen countries, and fifteen women’s teams from fourteen countries, are expected to compete this coming Saturday, and on paper the Ethiopian teams are the overwhelming favourites in both races.
The Ethiopian men’s team includes Kenenisa Bekele, Assefa Mezgebu, Abiyote Abate, Dejene Birhanu, Sileshi Sihine and Gebre-egziabher Gebremariam.
Bekele is the reigning double World Cross Country Champion but was injured most of the summer track season. However, Bekele made a strong cross country come back last weekend in Oeiras. Assefa Mezgebu was third in 2000 Olympics, as well as second in the 2001 Worlds and set a personal best of 26:49.90 for 10,000m in Brussels this summer. In the same race, Gebremariam and Sihine ran 27:25.61 and 27:26.12 respectively, and earlier in the year took gold and silver in the World Junior 10,000m in Kingston. It is hard to imagine this Ethiopian team losing the road relay.
The obvious challenger to the supremacy of Ethiopia is Kenya. However, the Kenyan team does not include any of the real big names like Paul Kosgei, Sammy Kipketer or Charles Kamathi, and consists of Kenyan runners who usually compete for Japanese corporate teams. The team line up is Julius Gitahi (ninth at 5000m in Sydney), Samuel Kabiru, Simon Maina (1998 CWG champion at 10,000m), Julius Maina, Jackson Gachiuri, and James Maina. One advantage for the Kenyan team is that because they regularly run for Japanese corporate teams, they well know how to run an ekiden.
Other strong teams are the defending champions South Africa, and hosts Japan who won three titles in a row from 1998 to 2000.
The Japanese women’s team have won the last ten events in a row, which is quite a feat although most of the foreign teams were not “A” teams.
This year Japan is lead by Kayoko Fukushi, a double silver medallist at the Asian Games 5000m/10000m. Other team members are Ayumi Hashimoto, Kazue Ogoshi (junior world record holder at 20Km), Takako Kotorida (4th in Asian Games), Yuko Manabe, Mika Okunaga and Noriko Takahashi.
However, the hosts will have their hands full this year with strong challenges being mounted by Ethiopia, Russia and Romania.
The Ethiopian women’s team is headed by the reigning World and Olympic 10,000m champion Derartu Tulu. She is joined by Meseret Defar (World Junior 3000m/5000m Champion), Asha Gigi, Ayelech Worku (World Silver medallist at 5000m), Merima Denboba (13th World 5000m), Tirunesh Dibaba (World Junior
5000m silver medallist) and Worknesh Kidane (7th in Olympic 5000m).
Other strong teams are: Russia - Olga Yegorova (2001 World Champion at 5000m), Lilia Volkova, Yelena Zadorozhnaya (3rd at 3000m World Indoor), Galina Bogomolova, Oxana Belyakova Victoria Klimina and Galina Alexandorova; and Romania - Mihaela Botezan (5th in Edmonton, 4th in Munich at 10000m), Dita Constantina (2:23:52 marathon in Amsterdam), Alina Gherashim, Luminita Talpos, Cristina Grosu, Iulia Olteanu (8th in Atlanta) and Cristina Pomacu.
The team that could surprise us is China which is lead by Sun Yingjie, the double Asian Champion at 5000m/10000m.
Ekiden is all about uncertainty. Upsets are common and that is what makes the race so intriguing to watch.
The annual ekiden started in 1988 and in its inaugural year a legendary marathon runner Toshihiko Seko ran his last competitive race of his illustrious career; he was the anchor for Japan and the team finished third behind Ethiopia and Australia. Historically most of the big stars in Japan have run this ekiden. Naoko Takahashi (Olympic champion anchored in 97),
Toshinari Takaoka (quadruple Asian record holder run in 92 and 96), Masako Chiba (1997 World bronze medallist run in 95 and 96), Junko Asari (1993 World Marathon gold medallist run in 92), and Hiromi Suzuki (1997 World Marathon champion run in 96) all competed in Chiba Ekiden.
Although most foreign teams do not send their “A” team to the Chiba Ekiden, some established and up-and-coming stars have participated in the past, including, Abebe Mekonnen (1988), Dionicio Ceron (1990), Haile Gebrselassie (1991), Steve Moneghetti (1991, 1992), Ingrid Kristiansen (1993), Olga Bondarenko (1993), Saleh Hissou (1993), Valentina Yegorova (1996), Catherine Ndereba (1998 and 2001).
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF