World 10,000m champion and twice-double World Cross Country champion Kenenisa Bekele will come up against his compatriot and World 10,000m Bronze medalist Sileshi Sihine, as Ethiopia host the 21st East African Cross Country Championships this weekend at the Jan Meda race course in Addis Ababa.
While the championships will also serve as the qualification trails for the Ethiopian Athletics Federation to select its team for the 32nd World Cross Country Championships to be held in Brussels, Belgium (March 20-212004), it features athletes from five African countries- Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Uganda, and Sudan- all using the opportunity to stretch their legs less than a month before the Brussels tournament kicks off.
The main attraction of the two-day competition will be the senior men's 12km race to be held on Sunday in a typical "save the best for the last" tradition of the championships. The event will mark another stage of Bekele's campaign to defend his crown in defence in Brussels, as he lines up against a strong-looking field in front of his home crowd.
According to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, only the top four finishers in each of the six main events in Jan Meda are guaranteed a place in the Brussels, although Ethiopia will be allowed to take six in each category to the Belgian capital.
Bekele's position in the Ethiopian team for Brussels might seem assured given his impressive run to break the 5000m Indoor World record in Birmingham, England last Friday, but such is the level competition for places these days that the 21-year young prince will be aware that he is not guaranteed victory, even on his home turf.
Bekele's main challenge is expected to come from compatriot and current All-African and Afro-Asian Games 10,000m champion Sileshi Sihine. The 22-year old has looked impressive since winning bronze in Paris and has successfully traded a successful track season with impressive form through the mud of cross country this year by beating Kenya's World 5000m champion Eliud Kipchoge and World Marathon record holder Paul Tergat on his way to clinching the Great North Cross title in Newcastle, England.
Both Bekele and Sihine will be lining up against each other in the 12km with Lausanne's junior silver medalist Uganda's Boniface Kiprop providing the strongest foreign challenge. The 19-year old won the l’cross Internacional Zamotza in Amorebieta, Spain in January and hopes to do better than his seventh place finish last year in the same event.
In the senior women's 8km race to held on Saturday, World 5000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba has been promoted to the seniors this year at a tender age of 18, but she starts as the slight favourite for the title ahead of last year's senior World Cross Country champion Werkinesh Kidane and her older sister Ejigayehou Dibaba. Another Ethiopian teenage sensation Meseret Defar and World 10,000m champion Berhane Adere have opted to stay out of the event in order to enhance their chances of grabbing glory at the World Indoor Championships to be held next week in Budapest, Hungary.
Apart from the two major races, there will be six other races to spread over two days of competitions with 1421 Athletes from Ethiopia's ten administrative regions and twenty-nine Athletics clubs vying for honors in three categories- club, regional, and national honors.
Ethiopia won four of the six individual gold medals on offer last year in Lausanne and according to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation's Technical Director Mr. Endalk Kelemwork, the country has even better ambitions this year as well. "At the final moment, it will come down to who is the best, but our Athletes have been preparing well for Jan Meda and indeed the world championships," he told the pre-race press conference on Thursday. "This year, we have paid special attention to the youth by separately training them away from their seniors and we hope the results will speak for themselves."
21st East African Cross Country Championships- Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Event programme)
Saturday, February 28, 2004
6km Junior Women (Qualification)
8km Junior Men (Exhibition)
Senior Men's 4km (Qualification)
Senior Women's 8km (Qualification)
Sunday, February 29, 2004
8km Junior Men (Qualification)
4km Senior Men (Exhibition)
4km Senior Women (Qualification)
12km Senior Men (Qualification)
Note: The first four Ethiopian finishers from the six events automatically qualify for Brussels.