Bahrain’s World 1500m champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal and Asian 10,000m record holder Ahmed Hassan Abdullah comfortably defended their women’s and men’s titles respectively at the 10th Asian Cross Country Championships in Manama, Bahrain on Sunday (01).
In a championship dominated by the host nation, Alemu Bekele and Shitaye Eshete were the winners of the men’s and women’s junior races.
Senior Women - Jamal in a class of her own
For Jamal, who has never lost in competitions held by the Asian Athletics Association (AAA), anything less than victory would have been the biggest shock in the short history of these championships. And the 24-year-old lived up to her pre-meet billing with a comfortable victory in front of a small, but vocal home crowd at the Al-Rafah Bahrain Hippodrome in the Southern part of the capital.
Despite a rare downpour and consequent windy conditions, the race’s out-and-back course helped the runners set a fast tempo from the early part of the race. Japan’s Aya Nagata chose to do the leading for the first half of the race with Jamal and teammates Mimi Belete and Sara Bakheet Yaqoob in tow.
Bakheet was the first from the major contenders to fall back from the leading group, but Agata’s persistence at the head of the pack helped make up for a brief, but interesting encounter with the Bahraini duo.
At the bell, Jamal and Belete had already made easy work of dispatching Agata who hang for dear life in the last bronze medal position. Buoyed, no doubt, by the fact that she was making her competitive home debut, Jamal cruised ahead with 600m of the race left to take a comfortable victory in 26:21.6, ten seconds ahead of Belete with a battling Agata home in third.
“It was an easy race for me and almost like a training run,” said Jamal afterwards. “I have started 2009 in good shape. I run 4.02 in Birmingham last week and this is good base for the outdoor season. At the moment, I have not decided on the World Cross Country championships. I will talk with my coach (Tareq Sabt Hasan) and then decide.”
In the race for team titles, Japan narrowly edged out Bahrain to take the title with India coming home in third.
Senior Men - Abdullah leads Qatari clean sweep
The senior men’s race followed a similar path to the women’s as Qatar’s Ahmed Hassan Abdullah, who won the title in Amman two years ago, comfortably defending his title to lead a Qatari clean sweep of the first four places. This is despite world 3000m Steeplechase record holder Saif Said Shaheen’s no-show at these championships as he continues to fight his back from long-term injury.
After a nervy start, the race quickly assumed predictability by the half way point as the four Qataris - Abdullah, Essa Ismail Rahed, Felix Kikwai Kibore, and Musa Amer Obaid - made it a contest among athletes competing for the same flag.
It was Kibore and Obaid who quickly dropped back from the front pack as Abdullah and Rahed powered on at the front to set up the race the finish. But as Abdullah powered ahead with a lap left, Rahed had little left in reserve to mount a serious challenge. At the end, he was even fortunate to claim second place despite a late surge from Kibore.
Junior Men - Could Alemu Bekele be the next king of Cross Country?
Multiple world cross country champion Kenenisa Bekele and the virtually-unknown Alemu Bekele, though unrelated, have many more similar things than their last name. They are born in Bekoji, Ethiopia which is considered the breadbasket of running in Ethiopia; joined the Muger Cement at an early age; and had shown enough promise at an early age to be considered the next Ethiopian distance running legend. But the similarity ends here. While Kenenisa has dominated cross country running in the last eight years winning a total of twelve titles, Alemu, who changed allegiances to Bahrain less than three months ago, is more of a potential than a certainty. In Manama on Sunday he made a laughing stock of a talented field in the men’s junior race.
Always leading from the front and never having to run to his full potential here, the young Bekele destroyed fellow Bahraini Edwin Chebii with a lap left to power to a comfortable victory. The four-second difference between the top two runners in the field might suggest a close-race, but this was never a contest, rather a one-youngster show.
“I expected victory here and I was not surprised by the win,” said A. Bekele. “This is the first time I have run outside Ethiopia and I have the confidence for future competitions.”
The home nation’s dominance continued in the junior women’s race when another Ethiopian-cum-Bahraini Shitaye Eshete took victory ahead of compatriot Tejitu Daba.
Bahrain to bid for WAS Events
After the successful hosting of the championships, the small, but prosperous Middle East nation of Bahrain is now thinking of making a serious big for future world athletics series events.
“I do not know how what the timetable for the bidding is, but we are interesting in hosting events like the World Half Marathon Championships and the World Cross Country Championships,” said Bahrain Athletics Association (BAA) President Shekih Talal bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa. “We feel proud and committed to organizing such high profile events. We are proud for the achievements of our athletes today. It is a clear indication that we can go on and do well in future events.”
Bahrain’s dominance of the junior races and the senior women’s competitions suggests that they could pose cross country’s traditional powerhouses Ethiopia and Kenya problems in Amman in four weeks time. With the exception of Maryam Yusuf Jamal, who still has not decided on her Amman participation, all athletes who competed here will take part in Amman in what is already looking like a formidable Bahraini squad for the championships.
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF