With just less than a month to go until the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Saint-Etienne/Saint-Galmier, France, 19-20 March 2005, a record eighty-two IAAF Member Federations have entered athletes, and so we can look forward to the most international battle ever.
Two names have dominated the headlines at the World Cross Country Championships in recent years. Kenya’s Edith Masai has sprinted away with a triple set of women’s short race titles, but most famously Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, starting with his junior win in 2001 has secured seven individual golds, including three short and long race senior men’s doubles (2002, 03, 04).
Yet events in the first two months of 2005 have meant that the winning script for Saint-Etienne/Saint-Galmier is anything but predictable. Fate has cruelly dealt a blow to the title aspirations of these two dominant names of championship cross country running, with injury and personal tragedy respectively denting their hopes.
Masai’s three World Cross Country victories have in many respects come as a surprise, brave triumphs attained against the run of form. The oldest ever World Cross Country Champion when taking her first title in 2002 as a 34 year-old, Masai’s wins in Dublin 2002, Lausanne 2003 and Brussels 2004 have been the glorious exceptions in otherwise moderately successful years. As an example her best global track result remains the 5000m bronze in Paris 2003.
By contrast Bekele, the master of the mud, has been as dominant on the track, both indoors and out, as he has been at cross country. With a winning streak of 20 cross country races across the open terrain on his career CV, the 22 year-old Ethiopian is by far the greatest ever exponent of this discipline. Yet the tragic loss of his fiancée at the start of the year has understandably sapped his strength and Bekele has suffered two successive indoor track defeats this month.
Despite their problems both champions look set to return to the World Cross Country Championships next month. Masai, has been included in the provisional Kenyan squad, and Bekele should be named in the Ethiopian team after it is selected following their final trials at next weekend’s East African Cross Country Championships in Nairobi, Kenya.
Yet while Masai will be on the hit-list particularly of the Ethiopians Werknesh Kidane (2002/03) and Tirunesh Dibaba (2004) who she beat to the title, it is surely Bekele’s even more distinguished reputation which is most under threat in France. The Kenyans led by World 5000m champion Eliud Kipchoge who romped away to victory at their recent national trials, Qatar’s Saif Saaeed Shaheen, possibly Morocco’s double Olympic track champion Hicham El Guerrouj, and of course any number of Bekele’s compatriots, will be waiting to pounce should even a glimmer of doubt remain about Bekele’s cross country invincibility come the weekend of 19 - 20 March 2005.
Edith Masai ended the 2004 season of IAAF World Rankings as the fourth best athlete in the women’s 5000m-10,000m Event category (which includes cross country), while 2004 World Athlete of the Year Kenenisa Bekele was number one in the equivalent men’s Event, as well as topping the men’s Overall IAAF World Ranking.