Ethiopia’s Tadesse Tola outsprints Eshetu Wondimu in Venta de Baños (Manuel Brágimo) © Copyright
Preview 8 February 2008 – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Cross Country Trials - PREVIEW

Addis Ababa, EthiopiaFormer World Cross Country 4km short course champion Gelete Burka** and defending national 12km champion Tadesse Tola will lead a star list of athletes slated to compete in the 25th Jan Meda International Cross Country - the Ethiopian World Cross Country Championships Trials - at the Jan Meda race course in Addis Ababa on Sunday 10 February 2008.

Two strong junior races are also expected to bring the country’s upcoming distance running talent together, while Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti, South Africa, and Sudan will battle the host nation in the international team competition.

Burka leads women’s 8km long race

But all the attention in Sunday’s four races will focus on the battle to make Ethiopia’s team for the 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland (30 March 2008). After a disastrous campaign last time out in Mombasa, Kenya, where the country’s athletes failed to win a single individual gold, there is a big incentive to be included in the squad this time around.

Topping the bill are the two senior races with the women’s 8km expected to provide the highlight of race day. Leading the challenge will be Gelete Burka. The 21-year old, who finished just outside the medals in fourth in Mombasa last year, has sterling cross country pedigree and the outstanding favourite going into Sunday’s race.

Burka is so determined on returning to Edinburgh (where she has won the Great Edinburgh XC in the last three years) but she will not have an easy time of winning the title in Addis Ababa.

The chasing pack is led by All-African Games 10,000m champion Mestawet Tufa who returns to competition for the first time since dropping out of the women’s 10,000m at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Tufa finished second in last year’s race behind Meselech Melkamu, who is competing in Valencia on Saturday.

Wude Ayalew, the 2007 TOYOTA Great Ethiopian Run 10km champion and 10th in Mombasa last year; Olympic 10000m silver medallist Ejegayehou Dibaba, who won silver in the 2004 World Cross; Koreni Jelila, the Addis Ababa Municipal 8km XC champion in December 2007; and Asselefech Mergia, the 2007 Confidence Women First 5km winner will be in the reckoning for a top six finish.

Tola, Dinkessa battle for men’s 12km honours

In contrast to the women’s race, the men’s 12km sees no outright favourite. But the main battle could be between two runners who have enjoyed mixed forms going into the trials this weekend.

Defending champion Tadesse Tola was a revelation of the Ethiopian athletics season in 2007 where he won national cross country and 10,000m track titles. He has tried to replicate this domestic form internationally finishing second in the All-African Games 10,000m final behind Eritrean Zeresenay Tadesse, but then struggling in Osaka where he finished fifteenth.

This season, Tola has enjoyed a mixed vain of form. Although he won a tight contest ahead of Kenyan Joseph Ebuya in Venta de Banos, Spain, he only managed sixth in Seville against more illustrious opponents. The 22-year old will hope to use the race in Addis Ababa as part of his attempts to recover form ahead of the big test in Edinburgh.

In contrast, fellow Prisons Police club runner Abebe Dinkessa has had a torrid 2007 blighted by injuries and loss of form. He described his form ahead of Mombassa last year as ‘the best of my life’, but twisted an ankle in the Kenyan coastal city to rule himself out of the rest of the season.

He made a brief return to form this season with a fourth place finish in the 51st Campaccio EAA Cross country meet in San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy, but needs to re-demonstrate the form that saw him finish just outside the medals in the 2005 World Cross in St. Etienne/St. Galmier, France.

Habtamu Fekadu, winner of the Obudu Ranch 11.5km Mountain race in Nigeria; Dejene Debele; winner of the Addis Ababa Municipal XC in December last year; and road specialist Eshetu Wondimu are expected to figure in the chasing pack.

Gebremeskel and Mesfin battle for junior supremacy

Ethiopian runners had been overwhelmed by Kenya in the junior races in the last three editions of the world cross country, but if a fight back of sorts should ensue this year, the trials should offer a headache for selectors given the abundance of talent on disposal.

Tipped to make their breakthrough this year are Dejen Gebremeskel and Hunegnaw Mesfin, African junior 5000m and 10,000m silver medallist in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso last year. Gebremeskel, a product of the Ethiopian youth development projects system, is the favourite in the junior men’s race, but Mesfin should also figure among the medals.

Utura, Melese, Etea, G. Dibaba and more in the junior women’s race

The junior women’s race in 2003 will always be remember for its incredible podium with Tirunesh Dibaba, Gelete Burka, and Meselech Melkamu taking the top three finish in Addis Ababa and then finishing first, second, and fourth in that order in the worlds in Lausanne a month later. All three runners have gone on to win senior medals.

Apart from a top four cleansweep a year later, none of Ethiopia’s top junior runners have come remotely close to replicating that achievement. This year, however, there is hope that a red carpet is expected to roll off for the next generation of youngsters.

Leading the so-called new generation is defending champion Sule Utura, who last year came from nowhere to win a surprise victory in Addis Ababa and then finish fourth in Mombassa a month later. Utura also proved her achievement in Mombassa is no fluke by winning bronze over the 3000m at the 5th IAAF World Youth Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic in June last year.

Mahlet Melese was the surprise silver medallist ahead of Utura in that event last year and has progressed well over the past year to earn the nickname ‘Teneshua Mesi Little’. Although she does not possess any cross country pedigree, her international experience will be important for the team if she negotiates the trials in Addis Ababa. 

Double African junior 1500m/3000m champion Emebet Etea finished behind Utura in last year’s race and should come into the reckoning again, while Genzebe Dibaba, fifth in Mombassa last year, will also be in the running.

EAF to decide on missing athletes

Despite a host of talent on show this year, the field is still missing proponents of Ethiopia’s World Cross campaign in yesteryears. Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, Meselech Melkamu, Tariku Bekele and Abraham Cherkose will all compete indoors in Valencia, while Sileshi Sihine is injured and unable to compete this weekend.

“We will make a decision on their potential participation,” said EAF Technical Director Dube Jillo. “The runners who are taking part in Valencia want to qualify for the World Indoors. Some of them want to run both competitions. But we will make an administrative decision on their participation after the trials.”

Elshadai Negash for the IAAF

* NB. Organisers of this Saturday’s IAAF indoor permit meeting in Valencia originally had Burka down as competing at their meeting, but we will now have to wait until official start lists are produced for definitive confirmation of where she will run this weekend.