Before the Ethiopian team came to Brussels for the 32nd World Cross Country Championships, there was an air of optimism that this could well be the country’s best ever performance at the event.
Apart from the individual titles, of which four went to the East Africans last year, Head team coach Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre and his strong team of 32 runners were embarking on team success, an attack on Kenya’s stronghold.
It did not take a genius to figure out that these championships would be a battle between the two East African powers of long distance running, but despite assembling one of their strongest teams ever, the Kenyans had no answer to their neighbours’ dramatic domination.
“We really wanted to beat the Kenyans,” says Maeregu Zewdie, bronze medallist in the men’s 4km. “Even though Kenenisa [Bekele] won the long course title in the last two years, the Kenyans took the team titles. We have succeeded now and it feels great.”
The Ethiopians grabbed all three team titles on offer yesterday and had it not been for a determined and overpowering display of brilliance from Australian Benita Johnson, who surprisingly took the women’s 8km title, the Ethiopians would have made it a perfect nine out of nine on the individual medal standings.
Running and winning for the country has always been a major motivator for the Ethiopians. Starting from great Abebe Bikila- two-time Olympic Marathon champion in Rome’60 and Tokyo’64- all the way to Haile Gebrselassie and now to Kenenisa Bekele, their main going into the race is proving themselves as worthy Ethiopians and seeing the nation’s tri-colors at the highest point in the centre of the three medal flagpoles.
“I came here to hear my national anthem,” said junior winner Melkamu. “Now that it happened, I know that I have accomplished my mission.”
The secret to Ethiopian success, as they will not tire of telling you, is the culmination of hours of training each day and the “Help of God”. “The training was more difficult than the race today,” reaffirmed Melkamu. “But most of all, God wanted this to happen.”
And even on the rare occasion yesterday that an Ethiopian felt unhappy about their performance in the championships, they always consoled themselves in the team victory. “I came here saying that I will get what God has written for me in his script,” said Werkinesh Kidane, who went into the women’s 8km race as a strong favorite. “Third place is not all that bad because I am really happy about our team victory.”
On the individual front, Brussels is also proving to be a very successful hunting ground for the Ethiopians. Kenenisa Bekele again made the mud and terrains of cross country running seem all too easy picking up his third senior 4km title and is now well on course for his third double on Sunday. “From the beginning of the race I knew that the other competitors had targeted me with different systems,” said Bekele. “We thought they would come up with new tactics, but they were not so strong as we expected.”
The frightening news for their rivals is that, apart from 32-year old Derartu Tulu, the majority of the current squad are 23 years of age or younger and have the potential to dominate for years to come. While Kenya has not found an able replacement for Tergat and Ngugi, two powerhouses of cross country, the Ethiopians believe that they are the nation to beat in the years they come. “Now, no country can deny us the team titles,” says a confident Kidane. “We train together and we win together. And it is difficult to beat such kind of a team.”