MonteCarloIt is two decades since a nonAfrican won the junior men’s title (Spain's Pere Casacuberta, 1984), and even longer since the team title left the continent, so it is fair to assume we are looking at Kenya or Ethiopia to produce the bulk of the junior medallists at this weekend’s 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Brussels, Belgium (20/21 March).
Kenya have taken the team gold for the last five years, and indeed in 15 of the last 16 years, but Ethiopia have struck individual gold for the last three years.
Ethiopia have been blessed with junior stars such as Kenenisa Bekele and Gebre Gebremariam during that time, and it remains to be seen whether the likes of Meba Tadesse or Wondimu Mulegeta can keep up their winning streak. They also have also have Tessema Absher and Dema Weyessa from last year’s silver medal team to rely on in Brussels.
Though Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge won last year, the country has failed to produce an individual winner the three times the junior men’s race has been held in Belgium, so can the likes of Barnabas Kosgei – who helped them to team gold 12 months ago – finally give them a champion in the mud of Brussels?
Kiprop is favourite but will he prefer senior short course option?
Or perhaps Boniface Kiprop will go down in history as Uganda’s first winner of the title. Uganda have taken team silver for the last four years, and hope to end the Kenyan/Ethiopian dominance.
Third in 2002, second in 2003, so can Kiprop be first in 2004? He has experience of the muddy and undulating Park Van Laekens course, having competed in the Iris Lotto Belgian CrossCup in December 2002, and he clearly has the ability to take the junior crown having finished just two seconds behind Kipchoge last year – and the Ethiopian went on to record a shock World 5000m track success.
For much of the winter Kiprop talked about chasing the senior title and not even competing in the junior race. However, funding difficulties have hit the Ugandans who are sending only a handful of athletes and his federation will look for him to lead their quest for team success as they are fielding a full team in the junior race.
Although senior victory would have been appealing, he will now look for the junior event race to provide a springboard to future success as it has for the the likes of Ethiopia’s Million Wolde and Bekele, and Kenya’s Kipchoge in recent years. Kiprop is still set to line up against the seniors as he is entered to run Saturday’s 4km before competing in Sunday’s junior race.
Kiprop has already won the Cinque Mulini race in Milan this year, beating Ukraine's European senior champion Sergey Lebid by 15 seconds, and he expects to make the podium once again in Brussels this weekend.
Russia's Rybakov twins, Yevgeniy and Anatoliy, who were first and second respectively in the junior race at last December's European Cross Country Championships, seem to be Europe's best hope for individual success. Even without Aleksey Reunkov who completed their memorable medal sweep in Edinburgh, Russia could still serve up a team surprise in Brussels.
Junior Women -
The junior women’s race has also been dominated by Africans. Finland's Annemari Sandell (1995) was the last non-Kenyan or Ethiopian victor.
Last year Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba, like Kenya’s Kipchoge, went on to win the World 5000m title in Paris after taking the World Cross Junior gold, and Ethiopia will look to Meselech Melkamu, twice national junior cross country champion to replace Dibaba as champion, and keep the junior crown out of the hands of fierce rivals Kenya.
Melkamu finished fourth last year and will be hoping to make the podium this time as Ethiopia seek their fifth team success in seven years.
Chemutai Rionotukei, ninth last year, and Jebichi Yator were first in the Kenyan Championships and they will also look for Gladys Chemweno to use her experience from last year’s race (7th) in Lausanne to help them pip their rivals.
Japan tend to compete well in the junior women’s race and apart from last year have made the podium as a team every time since 1993. Of this year’s squad Yuko Nohara was a 3000m bronze medallist at last summer’s World Youth Championships.
- On reading these previews please note that until Friday's Technical Meeting has taken place, all team line-ups retain a certain fluidity.