Bekele heads the short race field (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Fukuoka, Japan

A crossroads for cross country

It is unarguable that international cross country reached a turning point at around 3.30 in the afternoon at Fukuoka today.

For a start, the last IAAF World Cross Country Championships to include the 4km short races had just concluded. The 34th edition of the championships had also seen Kenya confirm that they are regaining strength as a world distance power by reclaiming the title that they cherish most dear, the men's 12km team prize, which they had held for 18 years until Ethiopia interrupted their hegemony in 2004.

And then Kenenisa Bekele delivered the sort of shock normally measured in seismic proportions: he was not planning on racing at the World Cross again.

At only 23, Bekele had just won his 10th senior World Cross title after five years of monopolising both the short- and long-course races. Normally, it would be reasonable to expect him to carry on racing cross-country successfully for the best part of the next decade, or at the very least seek to surpass Paul Tergat's record of five successive long-course titles that he had equalled that afternoon.

But no. That was enough, said Bekele.

In the routine post-event press conference for medallists, he was asked, seemingly innocently enough, by a Kenyan journalist whether he had any plans to visit or train in Kenya ahead of next year's World Cross, to be staged in Mombasa.

Bekele spoke in his native Amharic for perhaps five minutes; his translator delivered in English his routine response to the suggestions that there might be any “tension” between him and his Ethiopian team mates and their Kenyan rivals (“There is no tension between us,” he said, for the record, “we get on very well as friends when we are not competing”) or that he had any need to train in Kenya.

And then came the shockwave that will have been felt between here and Addis Ababa, and probably beyond. “I am leaning towards not competing at the World Cross Country any more and making this my farewell,” he said. You could see the various journalists in the room look to one another as if to try to confirm what they were hearing.

“I cannot achieve anything new,” Bekele said. And before anyone might suggest that the multiple champion might be a little wary of taking on the Kenyans in their own backyard, he added, “If people think I am not in Mombasa because it is in Kenya, that is not true.

“It is because I have achieved everything I can in cross-country. I have been in it for six years, and I now feel it is time to make way for the new generation.”

It was an extraordinary announcement for such a dominant sportsman, at the peak of his powers. Can you imagine Tiger Woods walking away from Augusta after winning the US Masters golf tournament next Sunday, vowing never to return? Or if Ronaldinho announced that he had won enough football matches, so he wouldn’t be playing in this summer’s World Cup?

Had Bekele made such a statement a year ago, after he had endured the trauma of seeing his young fiancee dying while out on a training run, it might have been possible to better understand the decision at that time. Yet with another World Cross double behind him, and a year’s more experience with the international media, this weekend the young man had appeared more relaxed with his surroundings, speaking much more English than hitherto, and smiling a great deal. This was not an anguished sports star.

His clarification of his thinking behind the decision only begged more questions. “To move to the marathon now is too early,” he said, not unreasonably.

“I would like now to focus on certain events and do less of others. I want to reduce the indoors and the cross, and concentrate on the outdoors, to do well at the World Championships and the Olympics.

“It is not something I decided beforehand. If I had not won today, perhaps I would have had the motivation to come back and win it again. But I can achieve nothing new, which is why I have decided this today,” he said.

He was asked to compare his five double titles to the five championships won by the Kenyan greats, John Ngugi and Paul Tergat. “Certainly what Ngugi and Tergat achieved was a wonderful achievement in their time, because to win this event against very strong competitors five times is very difficult.”

Then he added his personal rider, context from a man who has been unbeatable on the country when pitted against squads of distance runners drawn from Kenya, Uganda and Eritrea, Morocco and the best in Europe, plus the emerging forces of Qatar and Bahrain. “To compete twice in 24 hours and win twice is a very great achievement. I have done that five times and I am happy to have done this for myself and my country. This is something very special for me.”

Thus, he seemed to rule out trying for a record-breaking sixth 12km title in Mombasa in 2007. “I don't think winning a sixth consecutive long race would be that special,” he said, adding, in case any of us journalists were not quite on message yet, “It’s not as if I have run the 4km race one year and the 12km race the next year. You should count it as 10 victories, because to my mind, I have already done better.”

Bekele's timing of his announcement might appear unfortunate, given that the Kenyans are enjoying a resurgence. They won both junior individual and team titles as well as reclaiming their Blue Riband this weekend. This follows on from a very successful Commonwealth Games last month. So when cross-country “comes home”, as the Mombasa local organisers have phrased it, next year, a battle royale might have been expected between Bekele and the likes of the highly rated Melbourne 5,000m gold medallist, Augustine Choge, who was seventh in the 4km race here on Saturday.

But apart from Sileshi Sihine, second to Bekele over 12km today, the Ethiopian men were looking a little thin at the front end of races by their own high standards: their fourth scorer in the 4km event was only 30th, while at 12km, despite having first and second finishers, they managed to cede the team title and silver medals to Kenya and neighbours Eritrea.

Might it be that Bekele is beginning to feel a little out-numbered in the leading group, an experience so intimidating and unpleasant that his hero and mentor, Haile Gebrselassie, abandoned his own World Cross ambitions at the height of his own career in the face of apparently insurmountable odds?

Or might it just be that Kenenisa is confident that one of the young generation of Ethiopian distance runners coming through will rise to his standard?

Because winning the bronze in the junior men’s race today was the 19-year-old Tariku Bekele, a young man who has already run faster at 5,000m than his older sibling managed at the same tender age. Rest assured: there will be at least one Bekele in action in Mombasa in March 2007.

Steven Downes for the IAAF