Derartu Tulu approaches the finish line in World Cross Country (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Tulu eyes fourth World Cross gold in Brussels

time former World Cross Country champion Derartu Tulu will return to the championships for the first time in four years when she joins double men’s champion Kenenisa Bekele and the rest of the Ethiopian team in Brussels.

Tulu last contested the championships in Vilamoura, Portugal in 2000, where she won the long course title before going on to claim her second Olympic 10,000m title in Sydney, and win the London marathon the following year.

“I would like to run the long course with Tirunesh, because I won’t be running a marathon,” Tulu said before running indoors with her cousin and the World 5000mchampion Tirunesh Dibaba in Boston on 31 January at the start of her Olympic year.

“Initially, her idea was to qualify for the 10,000m and the marathon, and then choose between them,” confirmed Tulu’s manager, Mark Wetmore last Sunday.

However, she later decided to skip running a spring marathon and focus primarily on the shorter track distances for Athens, encouraged partly by her 14:54.73 finish over 5000 metres in Boston after only three weeks of preparation, and her decisive role (6km leg) in the Ethiopian women’s winning Yokohama International ekiden team in February.

Like Bekele who, following his indoor 5,000-metre world record-breaking effort in February, was placed on the Brussels team without having to earn a spot at the national cross country championships, Tulu did not compete at the February 28-29 Ethiopian trials. While Bekele’s inclusion in the Brussels team was formally announced just prior to the nationals, Tulu replaces Werkinesh Tola, who ran the Seoul International Marathon on Sunday, on the previously-released senior women’s long race list.

A long-time Radcliffe rival, and a mentor to many

Britain’s Paula Radcliffe was among Tulu’s casualties when the Ethiopian earned her 1995, 1997 and 2000 World Cross Country crowns, returning from injury and maternity leave to do so the last time, before relegating the Briton to fourth place over 10,000m in Sydney.

With the World Marathon record holder Radcliffe entered in both races in Brussels, the long race on Saturday looks to be the first World Cross Country meeting for the two friendly rivals since Radcliffe’s milestone 2000-2001 seasons when she took world titles on the road and cross country.

The encounter will add another dimension to the already intriguing race shaping up involving Radcliffe, Kenyan-born Dutch citizen Lornah Kiplagat and Ethiopia’s defending champion Werknesh Kidane and 2003 World Junior champion Dibaba, with Ethiopia well-positioned to take the team title.

It was the accomplishments of Tulu, who in 1992 became the first black African woman to win an Olympic title, which had inspired her cousin Bekelu Dibaba to start running, following which Ejigayehu and later Tirunesh Dibaba also took up the sport. Brussels promises to be something of a family affair for the women, as Bekelu has lived in Belgium for some years, and Ejigayehu will be contesting the women’s short race the day after Tirunesh and Tulu line up in the long race.

The sisters have received plenty of advice from her over the years, but the Edmonton World 10,000m champion Tulu, who led an Ethiopian sweep of the medals there, is in fact a role model for most of the women on her country’s team.

“It’s not just with Ejigayehu and Tirunesh, but really with all Ethiopians that I share my experiences, and they do listen, and I feel good,” said Tulu. “I feel like a mother, and I am happy to be the ‘mother’ of so many.”

Tulu, Bekele and others raced indoors and cross country

Tulu, who is a mother of a five-year-old daughter, Tsion, experienced a difficult 2003 season, in which she fell ill at the Paris World Championships and also suffered a death in her family. She ended the year with a win at the Lisbon Half-marathon, and this season, she placed second in the Chiba international cross country meet, and has been preparing in the Ethiopian team camp leading up to Brussels.

She is one of several team members who have run indoors as well as on the cross country circuit this season, including the World 10,000m champion Bekele, who combined his phenomenal indoor debut with his cross country races and preparation with ease. “It doesn’t create any problems for me,” he said on Sunday. “Even if I hadn’t been running indoors, I would have been in training, and it’s not that different.”

The world record he picked up along the way, however – his first -- has had some impact on his Brussels campaign. “Although the things I accomplished before it are not minor either, it has had an effect,” he said. “I am going into this full of confidence.”