Amman, JordanHis Royal Highness Prince Feisal Al Hussein, the President of the Jordan Olympic Committee and Patron of the Local Organising Committee for the 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, told an eve-of-championships press conference here today that he was looking forward to “a truly memorable” occasion tomorrow.
Also on stage at the conference in the magnificent Sport City Hall was Lamine Diack, the IAAF President, Pierre Weiss, the IAAF General Secretary, Ms Sarah Kabbani, the LOC President, David Williams, the LOC Head of Venues, and Nick Davies, the IAAF Communications Director.
“One of my dreams as President of the IAAF is to universalise athletics all over the world and that is why I am pleased that this edition of the World Cross Country Championships is being organised in the Middle East for the first time,” the IAAF President said.
Soon the stage gave way to six elite athletes to watch out for when the four-race programme gets under way tomorrow afternoon at the Bisharat Golf Club. Present to give their last-minute view of what lies ahead were Mark Kiptoo (Kenya), Saif Saaeed Shaheen (Qatar), Hilda Kibet (Netherlands), Gelete Burka (Ethiopia), Stephanie Twell (Great Britain) and German Fernandez (United States).
Among the challenges, Kenya will be seeking to regain its ground as the leading nation after Ethiopia won all four individual and two of the four team titles at the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh.
Furthermore, it is 15 years since Hellen Chepngeno was Kenya’s last individual champion in the traditional Long Course (6km/8km) race for Senior Women and 10 years since Paul Tergat presented the country with its last Senior Men’s champion at the classic 12km distance. Kiptoo, Kenya’s captain in Amman, spoke words today that all of his country will be pleased to hear.
Kiptoo ready for the challenge
“It has been a long time but we are prepared to recover what we have lost for 10 years,” Kiptoo said. “As the team captain, I believe that tomorrow everything will be okay. We have worked very hard because we know the kind of pressure we are about to meet. We shall do our best and winning is the only option that we have.”
The race for the individual title is wide open in the absence of injured Ethiopian six-time 12km champion Kenenisa Bekele. “We respect all athletes but we are prepared, irrespective of who is coming,” Kiptoo said of the Kenyan squad. “In fact, we wish that he (Bekele) was here so that, if a Kenyan wins the race, he is present and nobody will complain that it was because of injury.”
The course is expected to among the tougher ones experienced in recent years and, looking at his own prospects, Kiptoo added: “I have prepared for all conditions. I had a chance to run in cross country in Europe in muddy conditions and also cross country back at home in Kenya, where the surface is dry so I’m okay in all situations.”
The 32-year-old Kiptoo made his World Cross debut last year, finishing 14th, having been a latecomer to the sport, running his first cross country race only three seasons ago. Now the army corporal wants to make up for lost time. “My ambition is to be on the podium, at least to get a medal,” he said.
Among the other contenders should be Shaheen, the Kenyan-turned-Qatari, who is making his return to the big stage after a two-year absence caused by Achilles tendon and knee injuries. Shaheen, the double World champion (2003/05) and World record holder in the 3000m Steeplechase, has a best World Cross finish of fourth place in the 2005 Short Course (4km) race, a year in which he was also eighth in Long Course.
“I remember in 2005 the problem that day was that I moved too fast too soon,” the 26-year-old Shaheen said today. “I killed myself in the middle of the race, so I was not able to finish strongly. What I learned from 2005 was that I had more speed than endurance so this year I concentrated more on endurance. The speed this time is very low but the endurance side is very good.”
Shaheen is adamant that Qatar, third in the team contest last year, will break into the top two. With a team containing Leonard Komon, runner-up to Bekele last year, and Moses Mosop, the silver medallist in 2007, Kenya start as favourites to take a 22nd team title in 24 years but Shaheen said: “Our guys have been in better form this year than any other year so everyone is very optimistic. I am not going to say if we will beat the Kenyans, that’s our secret, but tomorrow you will see for yourself.”
Of his personal prospects, Shaheen first explained that he dropped out of the Kenyan trials last month because of potholes on the course and not, contrary to rumour, because he was unfit. “First of all I should thank the Qatari government for the great support that they offered me,” Shaheen said. “They were on my side supporting me every single day. The speculation was that I was tired but that was not true. I didn’t want to go backwards again because of injury so I decided to pull out.”
Kibet – ‘I’m in good form’; 8km 'not too far' for miler Burka
While Kenya awaits a successor to Chepngeno, a former Kenyan, Kibet, now running for the Netherlands, is expected to be among the contenders for the Senior Women’s title. Of those who ran last year, only Kenya’s Linet Masai (3rd) finished higher than Kibet (5th). A close friend and distant relation of Lornah Kiplagat, the former Kenyan turned Dutch, who won the title in 2007, Kibet has high hopes.
On her 28th birthday today, Kibet said: “Last year was my first time (World Cross debut) and it was kind of a surprise to me to be fifth. For tomorrow, if I win a medal I will be very happy because I started training very late – I started from scratch, I was not running in high school.
“I came here on Wednesday morning from Kenya, where I have been training for the last month, and this morning I got a chance to go to the course. I ran for about 40 minutes. It is very tough, very hilly. But I must say I’m in good form. I’m well prepared. Lornah Kiplagat is a role model for me. She always gives me advice and I am happy to have her around me.”
Like the Senior Men’s race, the Senior Women’s has no clear favourite in the absence of triple Long Course champion Tirunesh Dibaba from Ethiopia. And Kibet expressed a view of her absence similar to that offered by Kiptoo on Bekele. “It’s a pity Dibaba is not around,” Kibet said. “We respect her as she is a great athlete. When I hear that Dibaba will not be there I am not thinking: ‘Yes, she will not be there’. I hope she will be fit soon and will come back.”
Burka, the 2005 Junior Women’s champion and 2006 Short Course winner, said that her emphasis was preparing for the 1500m at the World Championships in Berlin this summer. But, asked whether she thought the distance tomorrow might be a little long her, she said: “I think I’ll be okay.”
Twell – looking for ‘strongest performance possible’
At 19, Twell already has a career plan to follow in the footsteps of her fellow Briton, Paula Radcliffe and, while it is too early to expect her to emulate the double World Cross Country champion (2001/2002) and World record holder in the marathon, she is looking forward to her debut in the senior women’s World Cross.
The World Junior 1500m champion and three times European Junior cross country champion, Twell said of her prospects here: “For me, tomorrow will be about having the strongest performance possible. I am going out to finish as high as possible. I’m up against the best in the world so hopefully that will help me raise my game. I think a top-20 performance would be good but I would like to exceed expectations. Where I really want to finish I would like to keep quite precious to me.”
Fernandez hampered by foot pain
While the Junior Men’s race is normally dominated by Africans – only once in the last 24 years has a non-African finished in the top three – the appearance of German Fernandez, for the United States, in the field tomorrow has had people talking. But it was what Fernandez said today that should calm speculation. The 18-year-old Fernandez has twice set a World Junior indoor mile record since the turn of the year (3:56.50 and 3:55.02) but subsequent injury has hampered his prospects here.
Running for the US, Dathan Ritzenhein broke the African stranglehold with a Junior Men’s bronze in 2001 – but Fernandez’s sights have been lowered by what he described as “a stress reaction on my foot”. He added: “I’ve been running in pain for the last two weeks so, after this race, I’m probably going to take a month off.
“I can run with pain. I’m just here to help out the team and compete with the best runners in the world. I want to be in the podium top three (as a team). Individually I want to be top 15 but right now, with my leg, its up there in the air, so I’m just hoping to help the team and bring a medal back home.”
David Powell for the IAAF