Kenenisa Bekele completes his four consecutive World Cross double - men's long race (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Fukuoka, Japan

Senior Men - World Cross Country Championships - PREVIEW

History will be made at Umi-no-Nakamichi Park, Fukuoka, this weekend, venue for the 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships. For whatever the performance and achievement in Japan of Kenenisa Bekele, the outstanding favourite for the men's races, it will be the last time that the multi-world champion from Ethiopia has the opportunity to take titles at short (4km) and long (12km) races within 24 hours, and with it the lion's share of $100,000 first-place prize money.

This is the last time that long and short races will be staged at the World Cross, and Bekele intends to mark it by making it the fifth successive time that he manages to win both titles, another extraordinary achievement in the career of the 23-year-old Olympic and World 10,000m champion, who in Moscow earlier this month won his first World Indoor title at 3000m.

Bekele's mastery on the country has been well demonstrated already in 2006, with a battling victory at Edinburgh in January, when he saw off the bold challenge of Saif Saeed Shaheen, Qatar's steeplechase World champion in what had all the appearance of a re-run of last year's absorbing 4km World title race at St-Etienne/St-Galmier.

And it appears as if the final 4km World title race could pose the biggest threat to Bekele's monopolisation of cross country.

Among his challengers will be Shaheen, a World Indoor 3000m silver medal demonstrating that he is already in speedy form (if not yet quite good enough to bring down Bekele).

Perhaps significantly, though, Shaheen is unlikely to be alone in taking the race to the champion. Several men in peak track form, despite the early stage of the year, will be arriving in Japan, straight from the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

In Australia, 19-year-old Augustine Choge - winner of the World Junior Cross title a year ago - won a thrilling 5000m, beating home favourite Craig Mottram and his team mate, 5000m World champion Benjamin Limo. All three are entered for this weekend's races in Fukuoka.

The Kenyans enjoyed something of a resurgence in fortune in Melbourne, and they are sure to attack Bekele from the gun, especially in a 4km race where their team bristles with talent: as well as Choge and Limo, the 1999 champion in this race, their squad also includes Isaac Songok, the 2005 short race bronze medallist, and Sammy Kipketer.

Kenyan observers rate Choge as the most naturally talented runner to emerge since Daniel Komen. He holds the World Junior records at 3000 and 5000m and he has won World Youth and World Junior titles on the track.

His coach is Brother Colm O’Connell, who has seen the development of a cohort of world-beating distance runners through his school in the Rift Valley over the past 30 years or so. "He is the most versatile athlete that I have coached yet," Brother Colm says of Choge.

As well as Choge, Limo and Mottram, others coming to Fukuoka in race-hardened shape include an improving Ugandan squad, led by Boniface Kiprop, the 10,000m gold medal-winner in Melbourne, and Tanzania's Fabiano Joseph, who at just 20 already has a senior world title (at half-marathon) to his name, and who took the bronze medal in the Melbourne 10,000m.

Eritrea's Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Zersenay Tadesse, who ran the world's quickest half marathon, albeit on a downhill course, in Newcastle last autumn is another major challenger. Based most of the year in Spain, Tadesse has taken three solid wins on the 2005/06 circuit (Quintanar de le Orden, 7 Nov; Alcobendas, 4 Dec; Fuensalida, 10 Jan), and has solid World Cross credentials being the reigning long race silver medallist.

Shaheen's Qatari teammate Abdullah Ahmad Hassan, who finished third, far adrift of Bekele and Tadesse in last year's long race will also be in Fukuoka, and as a whole Qatar's squad will strongly challenge Ethiopia and Kenya for team titles. They took bronze medals in all three men's races last year, short, long and junior. 

Bekele's challengers will also come from closer to his home, as Fukuoka marks the return to World Cross action after missing last year's edition due to injury of Sileshi Sihine, the World and Olympic 10,000m silver medallist.

With such a tough potential line-up to contend with to defend his title in Saturday's short race, it is entirely possible - although by no means something ever yet observed in his previous four double victories - that Bekele might have the edge taken off his pace for Sunday's classic, long race.

For there he will have to contend with several other Kenyans, who are being saved for that race alone. They include Moses Masai, the African Junior 5000m and 10,000m champion, plus two-time World Cross short race gold medallist, John Kibowen, and former World 10,000m champion, Charles Kamathi.

Other national federations appear to have targeted the shorter race as their chance of team honours: the United States squad for the 4km event includes Adam Goucher and Daniel Lincoln, bidding for the Americans' first team medal in the short course event. In addition, the US 4km team includes Ryan Hall, and Jorge Torres, who are already familiar with cross-country racing in Japan, having won the 12km and 4km races at the recent Chiba International.

All comers, though, will first have to contend with Bekele, who, whatever the outcome in Fukuoka, has already established a record that can never be matched.

Steven Downes for the IAAF