Imane Merga kicks off his Cross Country campaign with victory in Atapuerca (Alfambra Fundación ANOC) © Copyright
Preview Seville, Spain

Punta Umbría podium gathers in Seville – PREVIEW

As usual, the line-up assembled for the ‘30th Cross Internacional de Itálica’ which will be held in Santiponce (Seville) on Sunday (15) – the sixth leg of this season’s IAAF XC Permit series - will be of the highest level and worthy of a World Championships contest.

The whole men’s podium from last year’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbría will be in contention led by Ethiopia’s reigning champion Imane Merga alongside the Kenyan tandem of Paul Kipngetich Tanui and Vincent Kiprop Chepkok, who grabbed silver and bronze respectively on that occasion.

The still 22-year-old Merga became the youngest World Cross senior men’s champion since his fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele won at the age of 21 back in 2002. After his cross country breakthrough, Merga was also impressive on the track by taking the 10,000m bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu and lowering his career best to a 26:48:35 time in Eugene.

More recently, the talented Ethiopian kicked off his cross country campaign successfully on the Spanish soil of Atapuerca at the opening leg of the IAAF XC Permit series last 13 November. However, he was clearly beaten by Kenya’s 2010 World Cross champion Joseph Ebuya on their encounter held a couple of weeks later at the L’acier permit. Sunday’s will be Merga’s first outing at the Itálica permit.

Ironically, Paul Kipngetich Tanui had initially not made the Kenyan team for Punta Umbría as he placed ‘only’ 7th at the Kenyan trials in Nairobi but he was finally picked for the team. The 21-year-old didn’t waste such opportunity and romped home in the silver medal position to head the Kenyan squad. The partially Japan-based rising star last raced at a 5000m event in Yokohama last 4 December with a 13:18.52 clocking to his credit.

The oldest of the three Punta Umbria medallists, just 23 now,  was Vincent Kiprop Chepkok who will be making his fourth appearance at this year’s Spanish XC season following a fourth place in Atapuerca, a fine win in Soria (20 November) and a runner-up spot in Amorebieta last Sunday behind a majestic Ebuya.

The list of top-class athletes on show this Sunday seems never ending. The defending champion is Kenyan Leonard Komon. The 23-year-old also won the previous year and will have the chance of being the first ever male athlete to win the title three times. The 2008 World XC silver medallist won the Llodio permit last 27 November and should be eager to keep his successful Spanish tour going on Sunday.

Another two-time victor in Seville is Moses Kipsiro. The 25-year-old Ugandan took the narrowest of the wins in 2008 and 2009 both in photo-finishes. Later in 2009 Kipsiro snatched the World Cross silver medal in Amman, Jordan, and confirmed his world-class status the following year with a bronze medal in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

Watch out too for Ethiopia’s Humegaw Mesfin, fresh from a brilliant win ahead of Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin at the ‘San Silvestre Vallecana’ 10km on New Year’s Eve with a 27:57  clocking and Kenya’s reigning World Junior XC champion Geoffrey Kipsang. Spain’s twice European XC silver medallist Ayad Lamdassem is in stellar form as he showed at the Edinburgh XC held last Saturday with a convincing 8km race victory and should also be in the mix for the top-ten spots.

Masai vs Cheruiyot thrilling showdown – Women’s race

Sunday’s women’s 8km contest arguably offers the best clash thanks to the presence of the Kenyan pair of Linet Masai and Vivian Cheruiyot, the last two victors here, the former in 2010 and the latter in 2011.  Cheruiyot ‘s win came just two months prior to her World XC gold medal in Punta Umbría where Masai had to settle with the silver medal for the third year in a row after her runner-up places in Amman and Bydgoszcz.

The track season witnessed a similar outcome with the 28-year-old Cheruiyot landing the World 10,000m title ahead of Masai, as well as winning the 5000m in Daegu, to complete a remarkable hat trick (XC, 10,000 & 5000) of  major wins in 2011.

Regarding this season’s form, while Masai recorded an overwhelming triumph in Atapuerca, Cheruiyot will be making her much awaited debut this cross country season.

This weekend’s race promises to be a Kenyan party as the field also includes Priscah Jepleting - 5th in Punta Umbría – and runner-up in Amorebieta last Sunday, Pauline Korikwiang, who came seventh at the last World Cross and finished runner-up here both in 2009 and 2010, and Mercy Cherono, the 2010 World Junior XC champion.

The smaller Ethiopian contingent comprises Belaynesh Oljira and Hiwot Ayalew, a creditable 10th and 11th respectively at last Worlds, while Europe’s safest best should be the newly-minted European champion Fionnuala Britton of Ireland and Italy’s Nadia Ejjafini, this year’s victor in Llodio before finishing just out of the podium in Velenje.

As is usual in the city, Seville will enjoy a nice day on Sunday with the thermometer rising up to 17ºC by the time of the event.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF