Sabrina Yohannes for IAAF
With two victories and two second-place finishes in the World Cross Challenge series, Gete Wami of Ethiopia is far enough ahead of the other women competing in the challenge and accumulating points that she is likely to remain the series winner, but the former world champion also stands a good chance of regaining the senior women's long course title.
24- year old Wami won the championship in 1996 and earned a bronze medal in both of the subsequent years, finishing behind compatriot Derartu Tulu and Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, who won in 1997 and 1998 respectively; and European champion Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain, who took second place both times.
With both Tulu and O'Sullivan absent due to motherhood (Tulu had a baby last year and O'Sullivan is an expectant mother), Radcliffe remains Wami's strongest competitor, but Wami is ruling no-one out.
"There are the Kenyans," she said. "And there could be others. It will only be clear when we are in the field."
Radcliffe is unequivocal about where her toughest competition will lie. "Definitely Wami," she said. "She's very strong."
Wami was fifth in the 1995 championships and won the following year in Cape Town, when Tulu, the defending champion, lost a shoe in the scuffle during the race. But in 1997, Tulu charged up from behind to reclaim her title ahead of Radcliffe and Wami.
"I've been focussing on speed training," said Wami, who felt stumped by the fact that she kept running strong races, only to find herself unable to change gears at the end to match strong finishers. Wami's bronze at the 1998 championships was due as much to an unexpected day-and-a-half-long layover in Rome's airport and misdirection by course officials on the race course as anything, but she continued working on her finish.
Last year Wami, a 1992 world junior silver-medallist and 1996 Olympic bronze-medallist over 10,000 metres on the track, secured gold in the 3000-metres at last year's IAAF Grand Prix final in Moscow, finishing in eight minutes, 40.11 seconds.
"Even though it isn't enough, it was good," she said of her track season.
On the cross-country circuit, Wami won her first two races this winter -- in Brussels and Durham -- decisively, leaving Radcliffe, who was battling a long cold, in fourth place both times.
In Wami's last two races, she lost to Moroccan Zahra Ouaziz by one second, but the two will not meet in Belfast, as Ouaziz is running the short course.
Wami singled out the Durham race as one that suited her most. "The course was good, because it wasn't muddy," she said.
But Belfast's wet weather and soft earth might not diminish Wami's strength, speculates Radcliffe.
"She ran really well in the mud in Brussels," said the Briton, who sees Wami as a favorite even on the difficult course in Belfast.
One aspect in which the two athletes' roles might have now been reversed appears to be respiratory health. "I've been feeling good for six weeks now," said Radcliffe about the cold that kept resurfacing, but this time Wami is trying to repel a cold she came down with this week, although she is doing better today than she did the day before, her teammates say.
Wami has been training with the team six days a week and working alone on the seventh day, in the weeks leading up to the championships. Team selections were finalised following national trials on February 21st.
Ethiopian women's junior and senior teams have medalled in the world cross-country championships eight times since 1990 (earning both a long and a short course senior medal last year). The 1999 squad includes last year's Cross Challenge winner, Merima Denboba, and 1997 junior bronze-medallist Ayelech Worku in the senior women's long race; Yemenashu Taye and Kutre Dulecha, junior champions from last year and 1996, competing in the senior women's short race; and 1998 junior bronze-medallist Worknesh Kidane.
Regardless of the outcome of her race, Gete Wami, with 94 points in the Cross Challenge competition, will likely not be unseated. Finland's Annemari Sandell and Kenya's Jackline Maranga, with 69 and 67 points, are her nearest competitors, and the most number of points they can earn -- 50 for first place in a championship -- will bring them up to just under 120. In the event that that happens, Wami needs only an eighth-place finish to win the series.
Barring worsened health or some calamity then, Gete Wami, who topped the Cross Challenge standings in 1997, will likely reclaim at least one cross-country crown in Belfast.