How refreshing to come to a major championship without a strong presumption as to who the winner will be.
That’s the position as we arrive in Amman for the 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships on Saturday 28 March. Four of the six women who have won the senior long course race since 2000 are still active at the highest levels of the sport, Paula Radcliffe (2001-02), Benita Johnson (2004), Tirunesh Dibaba (2005-06 and 2008) and Lornah Kiplagat (2007) but not one is running in Amman.
The only former senior champion entered is Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka, winner in Fukuoka in 2006 of the now defunct short-course title. At the risk of stretching a point to bolster the argument, and not taking anything away from that champions abilities, even that was a race lost as much as a race won as Dibaba pulled out ill at the half-way point.
And, of course, junior competition never stands still so when we turn to the junior women’s race there can be no certainty either, though it would be a foolhardy pundit who suggested the winner would not come from East Africa. Last year’s champion, Genzebe Dibaba, younger sister of Tirunesh, returns to defend her title.
If the champion’s tag means anything in looking for a senior winner, four former junior champions are entered in this year’s senior race. Meselech Melkamu won for Ethiopia in 2004, Burka succeeded her, Pauline Korikwiang won in Fukuoka three years ago and her Kenyan teammate Linet Masai won in Mombasa.
Looking through the Kenyan and Ethiopian teams, Florence Kiplagat won at the IAAF Cross-Country Permit meeting in Seville this year and then took the Kenyan trial in Nairobi a month later. Innes Chenonge was a close-up second with Masai and Linet Chepkurui following. Korikwiang finished only 14th but was drafted into the team as a wild card selection. As ever, the finishing order in Amman will be determined by what has happened in the final team training camp.
Wude Ayalew, bronze medallist at 10,000 metres in the African championships, surprised Melkamu to take the Ethiopian senior trial. Melkamu, twice a bronze medallist in the senior race, must fancy her chances in Amman. Sentayehu Ejigu ran 14:47.62 to win the Boston Indoor Games 5000 at the beginning of February.
The senior women’s title has been shared around of recent times with a Briton (Radcliffe) and an Australian (Johnson) interrupting the East African hegemony. As well, Kenyan-born Lornah Kiplagat won for her adopted Netherlands in Mombasa.
Hilda Kibet, another former Kenyan who has adopted Dutch citizenship, hopes to emulate her friend Kiplagat by winning in Amman. The European Cross Country champion, she could do it, too. Johnson, 11th last year in Edinburgh, is absent from Australia’s team this year which will be led by marathoner Lisa Jane Weightman (20th in Edinburgh) and 20-year-old Zatopek 10,000 metres winner Lara Tamsett. Stephanie Twell of Great Britain will fancy her chances of a high finish.
New Zealand’s Kim Smith ran 14:39.89 in an indoor 5000 last month and is targeting Amman. New Zealand has a great record in the region: the men won the world cross-country in Rabat, Morocco in 1975; the women were second.
But the most intriguing contender for the women’s crown is Maryam Yusuf Jamal, Bahrain’s Ethiopian-born World champion at 1500 metres. Her track credentials are virtually flawless and a win at the Asian championships suggests she is not without claims at cross-country. The World championship is several notches higher, but who knows what Jamal may be capable of? A possible precedent may be Kiwi great John Walker’s fourth place in 1975. He wasn’t a bad 1500 runner, going on to win the Olympic title the following year!
Another 1500m runner who should be in the mix is Britain's Stephanie Twell, the reigning World Junior 1500m champion and multiple European Junior XC champion who having won the IAAF permit meeting race in Antrim on 3 January, now takes on her first senior international championship challenge.
At team level, a reprise of the Ethiopia v Kenya battle seems likely, but seven other countries have taken a bronze medal in the past eight years - France, USA (also a silver in 2002), Great Britain, Portugal, Japan, Morocco and Australia.
East African dominance seems inevitable at the junior level, too, though Japan will push hard for a team medal.
Kenya’s Mercy Cherono has been 3000 metres gold medallist at the World Youth and World Junior Championships in the past two years, Genzebe Dibaba is defending champion and her Ethiopian teammate Sule Utura is World Junior Champion at 5000 (ahead of Dibaba and another contender here in Kenya’s Nelly Chebet).
Asami Kato (15th last year), Chise Shibata and Nanaka Izawa spearhead the Japanese team. Japan’s junior women have medalled in eight of the last 10 world cross-country championships.
Len Johnson for the IAAF
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