Tirunesh Dibaba wins the the women's short race to complete a golden double (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Fukuoka, Japan

Senior Women - World Cross Country Championships - PREVIEW

Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia will return to defend her short and long race titles this coming weekend at the 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Fukuoka, Japan (1 – 2 April), and despite recent illness, she remains a prohibitive favourite.

Last year in unexpectedly warm conditions - 27 degrees celsius with humidity at 35% - in St-Etienne/St-Galmier, France, the then 19-year-old Dibaba completed the second double in World Cross Country Championship history following on from Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan’s victories at the inaugural two-day/race edition of the championships in 1998.

If either Dibaba retains her titles or another athlete completes two senior wins in Fukuoka’s Umi-no-Nakamichi Seaside Park, it will be the last ever double achieved, as when the championships move to Mombassa, Kenya, for the 35th edition in 2007, the format will revert back to a one-day event, with the short races for both women and men being dropped from the programme.

After her wins in France, Dibaba went on to take a World Championship track double at 5000m and 10,000m in Helsinki completing a remarkable 2005 for the youngster which had begun with a World Indoor 5000m record, and left her in second place in the overall IAAF World Rankings for the year.

However, Dibaba began 2006 in unfamiliar fashion with a third place finish at the IAAF cross country permit meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, though a night spent upon the floor of an airport lounge the evening prior to the race, thanks to immigration difficulties in her transit through the UK, would not have helped her racing condition. 

Winning in Edinburgh was country woman Gelete Burika, the reigning World Cross Country Junior champion, who undertook the task of telling the world’s media that her name should be spelt with out an ‘i’, following a mistake in her passport. ‘Burka’ as we will now call her, is likely to be one of the Dibaba’s stiffest challengers in Japan for the short race title. In the World champion’s absence she took the Ethiopian short race title (4km) at the Jan Meda International on 26 February.

Behind Burka in Jan Meda was Meselech Melkamu, the 2004 World Junior champion, who has been selected for both the short and long races in Japan, and has shown good form on the European circuit with a win in Alcobendas (5 Dec 2005), and second place in Seville (15 Jan). The clearest indication of the strength of Ethiopia production line being the fact that the three Ethiopian women we have so far mentioned have won the last three World junior titles, Dibaba was Burka’s and Melkamu’s forerunner as champion in 2003.

Any of the Ethiopian line-up in either the short or long races has the talent to grab an individual medal such is the strength of their national depth. But if we are to mention another name specifically then it must be Bezunesh Bekele (no relation to Kenenisa), who is selected for the Ethiopian short race side, and was Melkamu’s vanquisher in Seville. Bekele finished in 12th place in the short and 10th in the long race in 2005, and must be a good bet to spring a surprise this weekend.

Moving to the most likely non-Ethiopian combatants for medals, then Olympic 5000m silver medallist Isabella Ochichi of Kenya is the favourite to provide them with the stiffest challenge for the short race title. Last year’s bronze medallist split Burka and Dibaba in the Edinburgh race, and only last week showed her good form by winning the Commonwealth Games title on the track at 5000m. This laid to rest a poor showing at the Kenyan trials, when a fifth place finish provided the worst ever domestic defeat of her career. Her claims at the time that she was then still in heavy training prior to her Melbourne and Fukuoka campaigns justified by last week’s emphatic win.

Ochichi will be joined in Fukuoka by Priscah Jepleting, who was fourth last year, and who won the national trials, while Nancy Wambui who took a 10,000m silver in Melbourne, also cannot be discounted. Certainly with Beatrice Rutto and Beatrice Jepchumba, who were second and third respectively in the nationals trials, also in the squad, the battle for team gold with Ethiopia will be a close fought affair. In 2005, only one point separated the two teams in the short race, and six points was the difference over the longer distance, with Ethiopia the victor on both occasions.

Aside from the Ethiopian and Kenyan camps where else should we look?

Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands, the European Cross Country champion, celebrated her 32nd birthday on 20 March and her major championship experience should serve her well. A World and Olympic finalist at 10,000m, she has good experience of running in Japan having raced in the Osaka marathon on two occasions, winning in 2002. She was sixth in the World Cross long race in 2004.

Australia’s Benita Johnson was the surprise long race winner in 2004 but was not in her best form in Melbourne in the last fortnight, losing out in the 10,000m in which she was one of the pre-race favourites. The 26-year-old finished in fourth, albeit in her season’s fastest time of 31:58.08.

Bahrain’s Yusuf Marayam Jamal, 21, currently the IAAF World Ranked number one for 1500m, and who took the bronze medal at that distance at the recent World Indoor Championships should not be overlooked but last year finished only 33rd in the World Cross short race. With the same caveat we should also put the name of Carmen Douma-Hussar of Canada into the frame, as the 1500m silver medallist at the 2004 World Indoors is another world class runner but only has a previous best finish of 17th (2004) at the World Cross short race.

Morocco will depend upon the three-time World Military champion Zhor El Kamch, while New Zealand counts on World Mountain Running champion Kate McIlroy.

The USA took a rare IAAF cross country permit race victory in the last fortnight when Sara Hall strode home in Chiba, Japan but her opposition was mainly local. Missing from that race was Japan’s Kayoko Fukushi, who was the winner of the other annual Japanese IAAF permit race in Fukuoka. If the hosts do expect a serious challenge for senior glory it is mostly likely to come from the 24-year-old who is the national record holder for 3000m and 5000m. She is in good form having set an Asian Half Marathon record of 67:26 in Marugame on 5 February, and pending World 15km record en route.

In terms of team efforts, the French, Portuguese and Spanish always put together strong squads, while the Russian women who were crowned European champions for the third time last December will threaten the bronze medal. In 2005 Russia came fourth in the short race, while Portugal took the long race bronze.

Chris Turner for the IAAF