21 MAR 2013 Preview Bydgoszcz, Poland

Merga now the man to look out for – Bydgoszcz 2013 senior men's preview

Imane Merga on his way to gold at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships (Getty Images)Imane Merga on his way to gold at the 2011 World Cross Country Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright

Two years ago, when Imane Merga won at the last IAAF World Cross country Championships, it was a slight surprise to many people as the Ethiopian had a reputation for competing well on the track but rarely winning.

He was only an outside bet for a medal in Punta Umbria and probably almost nobody's favourite for gold. Now the spotlight is on him.

In addition to a 10,000m bronze medal at the 2011 IAAF World Championships, his winter performances have made him among the leading candidates to win the coveted senior men's title on Sunday (24).

“Last summer was a disappointment. I had some slight injuries in July and lost my chance to go to the Olympics, but since November I have been steadily improving,” the 24-year-old runner modestly told the IAAF last week.

He won at the high-quality IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Atapuerca, near Burgos, in Spain last November and then took the honours at the famous Boclassic road race in Bolzano, Italy, on New Year’s Eve.

Although he dropped out of the Ethiopian trials last month, Merga just put this down to over-training and high mileage.

“I have been having some excellent training sessions, I've been going very well, so I will go to Poland feeling very confident of what I can do there,” he added.

By his own admission, back in 2011 cross country was hardly his favourite surface. However, a lot has changed in the intervening 24 months.

What pundits will be aware of though is that Merga’s best cross country results have come on dry courses and often in relatively hot weather. His two previous World Cross Country Championships outings – he was also seventh as a junior at the 2007 event in Mombasa – were in exactly those sort of conditions.

By contrast, the runners in Bydgoszcz are expected to have to compete in sub-zero conditions, and perhaps on a slippery or frozen course after several days of snow falling on the Polish city.

However, the conditions will be the same for everyone and as nearly all the other expected medal contenders come from East Africa, there will inevitably be the widespread feeling that the runners from the Rift Valley and beyond are a long way from home.

Ethiopia has named a strong squad that also includes the top class marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa, who showed that he is in shape to contest shorter distances with aplomb when he won the Ethiopian trials race last month.

Traditional rivals Kenya have chosen a team which will certainly be competitive but has little experience at the very highest level. Only two of their six-man team has competed in the championships before.

Hosea Macharinyang has competed in seven of the last eight championships and will be keen to finally make the podium after six top-10 finishes without managing to get an individual medal. Meanwhile Japheth Korir raced twice in the championships as a junior in 2009 and 2010, finishing fifth and third respectively.

However, a lot of eyes will be on the surprise Kenyan trials winner Philemon Rono, who will be competing in his first major international championship.

Rono, 22, could only finish eighth in the Kenyan Police Championships a month before the national trials, and barely made his profession’s team for Kenya’s top domestic race, but the policeman then completely upset the formbook in Nairobi last month and left many of the better-known names in his wake.

Uganda and Eritrea have had men among the medals in recent editions of the championships and have some familiar names in their teams again.

Moses Kipsiro remembers Bydgoszcz well after winning a bronze medal when the city last staged the championships three years ago. He also won a silver medal in 2009 and could challenge again after looking in fine form when winning at the Ugandan trials last month.

Teklemariam Medhin, the silver medallist in 2010, is the main name in the Eritrean team.

Still just 23, Medhin finished seventh in the 10,000m at the London 2012 Olympic Games last summer and, more recently, won the famous and consistently classy January cross-country race in the Spanish city of San Sebastian.

In addition to Merga and Macharinyang, one other top-10 finisher from 2011 returns to the fray in Poland – Bahrain’s Hasan Mahboob Ali, who finished ninth in Punta Umbria.

It seems highly likely that Kenya and Ethiopia will contest the men’s gold and silver team medals. Kenya’s senior men have won the team title every year since 1986 apart from a two-year hiatus in 2004 and 2005 when Ethiopia took the honours.

Three years ago in Bydgoszcz, Eritrea usurped Ethiopia to take the team silver medals for just the second time and they will be bidding to reach that rung on the podium again, although they are more likely to be battling for the bronze medals with Uganda.

Phil Minshull for the IAAF