Bekele breaking the tape at the 2002 World Cross Country Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Imperial Bekele strikes again in Brussels

Kenenisa Bekele gave an early warning that he has no intention of relinquishing his position as the world’s top cross country performer with a stunning display in the Belgian capital of Brussels yesterday.

Last winter the Ethiopian captured both IAAF World Cross Country titles in Dublin, and although he will only defend his long course crown in Lausanne his awesome display to win the fourth race of the Lotto-Iris Crosscup already suggests he will take some beating.

Bekele’s last cross country defeat was on Belgian soil, when beaten into second by Enock Koech in the 4km of the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Ostend, but he won the junior title the following day and has continued his winning habit ever since.

The 20-year-old, who missed much of the summer with an Achilles injury, has been compared to Ethiopia’s greatest ever distance runner - Haile Gebrselassie, with whom he shares the same manager in Jos Hermens. But even the Olympic 10,000m champion would have struggled to live with Bekele over seven laps of a quagmire. Two days of heavy rain turned Park Van Laeken into a sticky mud bath which seemed to suit Bekele but few others.

Right from the start he stamped his authority on proceedings with a 3:08 opening kilometre that was highly impressive given the treacle-like mud and the undulating nature of the course.

Already he was eight seconds up on defending champion Sergey Lebid, who began to take up the chase early into the second lap as he moved into the silver medal position. Lebid’s face was already splattered with mud, and while most seemed to be ploughing through the sticky conditions Bekele appeared to be floating effortlessly over the surface.

His lead doubled during the second lap and Lebid, the in-form Ukrainian who recently clinched his third European cross country title, then had to face the challenge of World Junior Cross Country bronze medallist Boniface Kiprop during the next circuit as the Ugandan closed him down.

Meanwhile, some of the other well-fancied athletes were making little impression in the mud. Four times European cross country champion Paula Guerra, the 2000 winner, never looked likely to make the top five in this race for the sixth time; Wilson Chemweno, the Kenyan army captain who won the first two races of the Crosscup, was being left in no doubt Brussels is the classiest race of the series; and World Half-Marathon champion Paul Kosgei was simply not a factor at the top end.

Early into the third lap, Kiprop went clear of Lebid and even closed slightly into Bekele’s 24 seconds lead for a short while as he tried to get away from last year’s winner. Behind them, Tanzanian Fabian Joseph was fourth and Britain’s Olly Laws was producing by far the best performance of his career in fifth.

With Bekele out on his own, all attention was on the minor places and Lebid, as he so often does, got stronger the longer the race went on and he moved back into second approaching the end of the fifth circuit.

Again the battle for second saw Bekele’s lead diminish slightly, this time down from the 38 seconds it had reached to 33, but the Ethiopian then powered away on the final two laps to more than double his advantage.

After ending three years of European successes in this race, he said: “I did not have one moment of trouble throughout the race. The hills suited me and while it was very muddy I have run in such conditions before when I won the world junior title in Ostend so I always felt in control. This will make a good venue for the World Cross Country Championships in 2004, when hopefully I will be lining up as defending champion.”

Bekele, who recorded his second cross country victory of the winter having triumphed in Oeiras, Portugal, last month, added: “I will only be doing the long race in Lausanne because our trials for both races are on the same day so I will not be able to double up this time.”

Bekele flies home to Ethiopia today but will return to Europe for the Great North Cross Country in Newcastle, England on January 4 when Kosgei - also winner of this year’s Great North Run half-marathon in a UK all-comers’ record of 59:58 - will have to be much more competitive to defend his title.

The women’s race saw European silver medallist Galina Bogomalova triumph with a gritty final lap to leave Merima Denboba in the runner-up spot again.

Denboba was beaten 12 months ago by Edith Masai, who went on to win the world 4km title in Belfast. Masai never threatened to defend her title (she finished 14th as Kosgei did in the men’s race) and was well off the pace as Bogomalova became the first Russian to win this pre-Christmas classic.

Surprise European champion Helena Javornik set out to prove her victory in Croatia was no fluke, and she strung the field out on the opening climb with athletes already covered from head to toe in mud.

A big group was still together as the first of four laps were completed. Javornik continued to set the pace but Denboba looked comfortable and at one point had to cut her stride to avoid running into the leader.

After two opening kilometres of 3:47, Bogomalova and Denboba began to pull away from Javornik, Restituta Joseph and Lenah Cheruiyot, and the longer the race went on the further the pair went away.

Although taking the widest route on the bends, it was still virtually impossible to find a racing line that avoided the mud but the pair continued to battle it out on the penultimate lap. Bogomalova refused to let Joseph lead for any length of time and every time the African tried to hit the front she would respond and take the lead again. Cheruiyot was beginning to pull clear in third but was 14 seconds behind the leaders, a gap that was to grow considerably.

Into the final lap, Bogomalova’s arms pumped furiously as she desperately tried to shake off her rival, but Denboba’s relaxed facial expression suggested she had more to come and the small lead the Russian opened up did not appear a winning gap just yet.

But over the final 400m she moved up several gears and left Joseph trailing in her wake as she stretched her lead to 22 seconds with the runner-up not even in the finishing straight as a mud-splattered Bogomalova crossed the line.

Men (10.5km)
1 Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 35:14
2 Sergiy Lebid (RUS) 36:28
3 Boniface Kiprop (UGA) 36:41
4 Fabian Joseph (TAN) 36:46
5 Olly Laws (GBR) 36:50
6 Tom Van Hooste (BEL) 37:08
7 Paula Guerra (POR) 37:12
8 Wilson Chemweno (KEN) 37:13
9 Leon Maurizio (ITA) 37:18
10 Enrique Molina (ESP) 37:27

Women (6km)
1 Galina Bogomalova (RUS) 22:44
2 Merima Denboba (ETH) 23:06
3 Lenah Cheruiyot (KEN) 23:29
4 Helena Javornik (SVK) 23:41
5 Suzanne Ritter (GER) 23:54
6 Restituta Joseph (TAN) 24:01
7 Fatiha Baouf (BEL) 24:03
8 Ionela Vasile (ROM) 24:07
9 Natalie Harvey (AUS) 24:17
10 Rosanna Martin (ITA) 24:18

Bob Frank for the IAAF