Abraham Chebii takes the 5000m in Rome (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Cinque Mulini Cross Country set to be an African affair

Africa is set to dominate the Cinque Mulini, the last IAAF Permit race of the cross country season scheduled in San Vittore Olona, near Milan on Sunday 7 March, just two weeks ahead of the World Cross country Championships in Brussels (20-21 March).

The battle between Abraham Chebii, Gebreegziaber Gebremariam and Boniface Kiprop is the highlight of this year's edition of the major Italian cross country race run over a fascinating course which is crossed by a series of ancient water mills and snakes through fields and along river banks.

The legendary Norwegian long distance runner Grete Waitz, six times winner at the Cinque Mulini, described the Five Mills as "the best cross country race in the world". 

Kenya’s Chebii is one of the favourites to clinch victory in the Cinque Mulini race which has eluded the Kenyan runners for the past two editions when the honours went to the young Ethiopian star Kenenisa Bekele in 2002 and Sergiy Lebid in 2003. The last Kenyan to win the Cinque Mulini was Charles Kamathi in 2001.

Chebii dominated the first part of the 2003 track season with two prestigious wins in the Golden League circuit in Paris and Rome and a 5000 metres PB of 12:52.99 set in Oslo. It was in the Rome meeting that he ran his best race of his young career when he beat Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie thanks to his devastating kick in the final 50 metres. Unfortunately the young Kenyan lost his best form in the weeks after Rome and finished "only" fifth at the World Championships in Paris in the race won by his young countryman Eliud Kipchoge.

In the current cross country season Chebii has enjoyed a successful season crowned by two wins in Elgoibar (Spain) ahead of Eliud Kipchoge and in the short course race at the Kenyan trials last February which makes him one of the favourites for the World Championships in Brussels.

Chebii's main opponents on Sunday are the Ethiopian rising star Gebreegziaber Gebremariam, third in long course race at the 2003 World XC Championships in Lausanne in the race won by his more illustrious compatriot Kenenisa Bekele, and last year's World Cross Junior second placer Boniface Kiprop from Uganda.

Gebremariam came to the fore in March 2002 in Dublin when he won the World Junior cross title and later in the same year he won the World Junior title on the track in the 10,000 metres in Kingston. Gebremariam is in very good shape this year after capturing victory in the Ethiopian trials in the long course race and the second place in the short course. It will be his first appearance in the Five Mills. The young Ethiopian, sixth in the Paris World Championships in 12:58.08 (his PB) in the 5000 metres, won three races in the European cross country circuit in 2004 in Valladolid, Fuensalida and San Sebastian.

Boniface Kiprop has significantly contributed to put Uganda on the map of cross country racing. The 18-year-old African finished third in the junior race in Dublin 2002 and second in Lausanne 2003 behind Eliud Kipchoge. In the past edition of the Cinque Mulini he gave Sergiy Lebid a run for his money for most of the race before being out kicked by the four-time European champion on the finish-line with both athletes clocking the same time.

The European challenge is led by Portugal's Hélder Ornelas and Christian Belz from Switzerland, finalist in the 5000 metres at the World Championships in Paris and second fastest European in the 5000 metres 2003 list with his PB of 13:12.16 set in Heusden Zoldner.

The Cinque Mulini also incorporates the Italian Cross Country Championships and will be the last chance for the best Italians to book their berths in the national team for Brussels. Giuliano Battocletti, Lebid's team-mate in the Cover Verbania, is in very good shape and has trained specifically in the last month for the defence of the national title he won last year in Rome. The 36-year-old Umberto Pusterla, ninth at the 2003 European Championships in Edinburgh on 14 December and fourth in Belfast on 10 January, will be Battocletti's main contender for the national title, although he competes in the short course at the World Military Cross Country Championships in Beirut scheduled on Wednesday 3 March, four days before the Cinque Mulini.

Aniko Kalovics, bronze medallist at the 2003 European XC Championships in Edinburgh and first at Campaccio and Vallagarina, leads the women's line-up which also includes Zakia Mrisho from Tanzania, second at the Cinque Mulini last year behind Alice Timbilil, Portugal’s Monica Rosa and the Italian revelation Silvia La Barbera, reigning European junior champion in the 5000 metres last summer in Tampere and fourth at the Campaccio last January.

The organizers from the local club "Unione Sportiva San Vittore Olona", who will celebrate the 72nd edition of this popular event which has been held annually since 1933 even during the years of the Second World War, are bidding to host the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in San Vittore Olona.