Kenenisa Bekele takes stunning sprint win in Edinburgh (Mark Shearman) © Copyright
General News Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopia seeks to top best medal haul in Fukuoka

Defending double champions Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba as Ethiopia’s squad of twenty-nine athletes made their last minute preparations for the 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan (1 and 2 April 2006).

But the team's coaches and officials are hoping that the squad can better the country's best ever medal haul from these championships two years ago in Brussels.

Bekele sets sights on fifth golden double

Much of the spotlight will focus on Kenenisa Bekele and whether he is capable of winning his fifth world short and long course double in Fukuoka before the short race is removed from the racing programme when the championships go under a format change next year in Kenya.

"Actually it will be my sixth double," said Bekele reminding us of his junior gold and short course senior silver medals at the 29th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Ostend, Belgium in 2001. "If I can do it, it will be a better achievement than all the others put together. I do not want to say anything before the actual race."

Those were his exact comments before he reduced his rivals to also-runs in the last four editions of the championships, but Ethiopian team head coach Tolosa Kotu has not doubts that Bekele will successfully double once again.

"Kenenisa is Kenenisa," he said. "He does not do anything extra-ordinary in training, but he brings out his best in competition. Anyone who saw what he went through last year would have forgiven him for losing, but he did not. You can imagine what he is capable of now that he is fit and has dealt with all that happened to him."

Ethiopia challengers

Bekele will need to be wary of the challenge from his own backyard.

After missing last year's edition due to injury, World and Olympic 10,000m silver medallist Sileshi Sihine returns to the World Cross, and will be keen to do better than his two previous outings where he finished seventh in 2003 and third in 2004.

Sihine's worrying form going into these championships could be a blessing in disguise for his club mate Abebe Dinkessa. Fourth in last year's long race, Dinkessa reaffirmed his place in Ethiopia's long distance teams with a seventh place finish on the track over the 10,000m at the World Championships in Helsinki last year. This year, he has beaten Sihine (Seville) and compatriot Gebregziabher Gebremariam (national trials) and could be the surprise medallist.

Other athletes to look out for in the men's senior team are 2005 Toyota Great Ethiopian Run winner Ketema Negussie and Ali Abdosh, a runner who beat Sihine, Dinkessa, and Gebremariam over the 4km race at the Ethiopian world cross trails.

Dibaba recovers from minor illness to double vision

In the senior women's team, all eyes will be on double World cross country champion Tirunesh Dibaba as she hopes for a repeat of her St. Etienne/ St. Galmier performance where she dispatched a world class field for two well-taken titles.

Dibaba's double attempt remains on track despite missing nearly a week of training due to minor illness. She returned to training on Thursday and according to Kotu, the 20-year old remains as good a competitor as she was before her illness. "Nothing has changed really," he said. "It was a minor illness and now she is back in form. She is special because she can bounce back to form."

The only cause of concern for Dibaba in Fukuoka might be her worrying head-to-head record against in-form runner Gelete Burka over the last year. Burka, the defending junior cross country champion, has moved up the ranks to senior competition this year and has already beaten Dibaba twice in last ten months over the 5000m at the Ethiopian championships in Addis Ababa and the 6km cross country at the View from Greater Edinburgh in Scotland.

Meselech Melkamu, fourth in last year's long race, will again double this year and hopes to earn her first senior medal after winning the junior race in 2004. Two medallists from 2004, Ejegayehou Dibaba and Teyiba Erkesso, are also among Ethiopia's medal hopes

Ayanu leads junior women
Ethiopians have taken three individual junior women titles in the last three editions of the championships and in Werkitu Ayanu, they have an athlete who has the potential to make four out of four. Ayanu walked away with the national title at the trials a month ago and travels to Fukuoka as one of the most experienced junior athletes in the competition.

Fourth two years ago in Brussels and sixth last year in St. Galmier, Ayanu beat Meselech Melkamu at the Juan Muguerza Cross Internacional in Elgoibar, Spain in January and goes into the championships on top form.

If the junior women's title were to elude Ayanu, then Belaynesh Zemedkun and Emebet Eta'a will be only too eager to pounce. Zemedkun, ninth in last year's junior race and the Ethiopian 3000m champion, is keen on medalling in her final junior year, while Eta'a, second in the 2005 Confidence Women First 5km in Addis Ababa, makes her international debut.

 … And Jeylan, T. Bekele the men

Selectors are also hoping that the junior men's team will end bring back junior gold to Ethiopia in what they hope will be a clean sweep of at the least the gold medals this year.

Tariku Bekele was the best finisher in sixth place last year as the Kenyans dominated the race to take all the first five places. T. Bekele returns this year after sub-13 minutes for 5000m indoors and 8:12 for the 3000m indoors.

"Training with my brother has helped me develop as an athlete," he said after finishing second at the Ethiopian trials a month ago. "I hope to perform better than last year in Fukuoka."

T. Bekele's conqueror on the Jan Meda race course four weeks ago was Ibrahim Jeylan, another member of Ethiopia's promising stable of stallions. The 17-year old won silver over the 3000m at the 4th IAAF World Youth Championships in Marrakech, Morocco in July 2005, and has shown that he is able to adapt to the rough terrains of the cross country.

Elshadai Negash for the IAAF

Ethiopia's team for the 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan

Junior Women 6km
Werkitu Ayanu (Ethiopian Banks)
Emebet Eta'a (Defense)
Derebe Godana (Oromiya Region)
Aselefech Aseffa (Muger Cement)
Belaynesh Zemedkun (Ethiopian Banks)

Junior Men 8km
Ibrahim Jeylan (Muger Cement)
Tariku Bekele (Muger Cement)
Demessew Tsega (St. George)
Abera Ertban (Benshangul-Gumuz)
Habtamu Fekadu (Defense)
Tadesse Tola (Prisons)

Senior Women 4km
Tirunesh Dibaba (Prisons)
Gelete Burka (Prisons)
Meselech Melkamu (EEPCO)
Teyiba Erkesso (Prisons)
Etalemahu Kidane (Omedla)
Bezunesh Bekele (Ethiopian Banks)

Senior Men 4km
Kenenisa Bekele (Muger Cement)
Ali Abdosh (Defense)
Sileshi Sihine (Prisons)
Gebregziabher Gebremariam (Ethiopian Banks)
Abebe Dinkessa (Prisons)
Zenbaba Yegezu (Defense)

Senior Women 8km
Tirunesh Dibaba (Prisons)
Ejegayehou Dibaba (Oromiya Prisons)
Meselech Melkamu (EEPCO)
Mestawot Tufa (Omedla)
Wude Ayalew (EEPCO)
Hirut Mengestu (Ethiopian Banks)

Senior Men 12km
Kenenisa Bekele (Muger Cement)
Sileshi Sihine (Prisons)
Gebregziabher Gebremariam (Ethiopian Banks)
Abebe Dinkessa (Prisons)
Ketema Negussie (Muger Cement)
Eshetu Gezhagne (Muger Cement)