11 NOV 2011 Preview Atapuerca, Spain

Merga and Masai lead the fields in Atapuerca XC - Preview

Linet Masai en route to victory at the Kenyan World XC trials in Nairobi (Stafford Ondego (The Standard))Linet Masai en route to victory at the Kenyan World XC trials in Nairobi (Stafford Ondego (The Standard)) © Copyright

The 8th ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’ will mark the beginning of the IAAF Cross Country Permit Series 2011/12 on Sunday, the first of three Spanish legs scheduled for this season.


Even facing a tough economic slowdown, the organisers (Diputación de Burgos) have brought together a star-studded line-up with no fewer than three out of the first eight men from the last World Cross Country Championships in contention including the gold and bronze medallists in the guise of  Ethiopia’s Imane Merga and Kenya’s Vincent Kiprop Chepkok. Unfortunately, last year’s victor Teklemariam Medhin of Eritrea won’t be able to defend his crown due to visa problems.


In addition to his Cross Country breakthrough, Merga claimed the bronze medal at the World Championships in Daegu over 10,000m. He turned 23 last month and will compete on Spanish soil for the first time since his stunning victory at the Worlds held in Punta Umbría last March. Holder of an impressive 26:48.35 performance in the 10,000m, Merga’s last appearance came in a 10Km road race in Italy last 24 September.


The Ethiopian squad will also include a top-ten athlete from Punta Umbría, Hunegnaw Mesfin, and the late addition of the former World indoor 3000m champion Tariku Bekele. Meanwhile Chepkok will have the company of his fellow Kenyan Mark Kiptoo, a creditable 7th at the Cross Country Worlds back in 2009. Hampered by the absence of Medhin, the Eritrean contingent will be led by Kidane Tadese and Kiflom Sium.


Powerful European armada on show


Sunday’s 9807m event will also act as a first stepping-stone for athletes targeting the European Cross Country Championships to be held in the Slovenian city of Velenje next 11 December. The field comprises the current European Cross Country bronze medallist Yousef El Kalai and his countrymen Rui Pedro Silva, Jose Rocha and Alberto Paulo while the local hopes are set on the reigning Spanish champion Ayad Lamdassem who will line-up alongside a couple of 1500m aces such as the current European champion Arturo Casado and the reigning European indoor gold medallist Manuel Olmedo, who missed the bronze medal in Daegu by just 0.25s to Matthew Centrowitz of the US.


Masai – G.Dibaba showdown – Women’s race


The 7839m women’s contest should witness an interesting clash between Kenya’s reigning silver medallist Linet Masai and Ethiopia’s 2010 World Junior cross country and 5000m gold medallist Genzebe Dibaba. The event features five out of the first 11 women from Punta Umbría.


However, the long-legged Kenyan should be the woman to beat given her incredible consistency as Masai has been runner-up at the last three editions of the World Cross Country Championships. In recent years, the talented 22-year-old has startled the Spanish fans with overwhelming wins at the Cross Country permits in Amorebieta, Llodio (twice), Alcobendas and Seville and so she should be eager to add the Atapuerca meet to her accolades.


As for Genzebe, the youngest of the renowned Dibaba sisters, she managed a respectable pair of top-ten spots in her first season as a senior, ninth in Punta Umbría and eighth in Daegu in the 5000m. As the ‘defending champion’ in Atapuerca, her face-to-face with Masai promises to be intense.


The fight for the theoretical remaining place on the podium should also be fierce. The Ethiopian triumvirate of  Wude Yimer, who came sixth at last Worlds in Punta Umbría, Beleynesh Oljira (10th) and Hiwot Ayalew (11th) will have stiff opposition from Kenya’s reigning World Marathon silver medallist Prisca Jeptoo and her compatriot Gladys Chemweno (14th in Punta Umbría).


The most remarkable Europeans specialists competing on Sunday are Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton, fourth at the last Europeans in Albufeira, and the usually strong Portuguese team including Analia Rosa, Ana Dias and Monica Rosa. It’s also worth mentioning the presence of Spain’s current European 3000m steeplechase silver medallist Marta Domínguez after giving birth to her son last May. She made her autumn debut last 30 October with a 34:21 clocking in a 10km road race in Madrid.


Weather forecasters predict a partially cloudy day on Sunday with 25% of rain likelihood and a temperature range between 12ºC and 15ºC by the time of the event.


Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF