Already the undisputed greatest cross country runner of all time, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele will enter new record-breaking territory this weekend if he succeeds in regaining the senior men’s title at the 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland (30 March). In the headline clash of the four-race programme, against defending champion Zersenay Tadese, from Eritrea, Bekele is seeking to become the first man to win the classic long course title six times.
In the magnificent setting of Holyrood Park, in the shadow of Holyrood Palace, Bekele will attempt to regain his kingship after a year’s enforced absence following Tadese’s shock victory at the 35th Championships in Mombasa last March. Because of his record of 11 World Cross Country individual gold medals (inc. one junior crown), and his return to form after failing to finish in Mombasa, Bekele will start as favourite but Tadese showed when the two met on the same course in January that he will not give up his crown easily.
Since Mombasa, Bekele has retained his 10,000m World title on the track, set a World indoor best for Two Miles (8:04.35), and re-imposed his authority over Tadese with victory in the BUPA Great Edinburgh International Cross Country – IAAF Permit race - on 12 January. While separated by only one second at the end of the 9.3km race - they race over 12km on Sunday - Bekele’s victory appeared more comfortable than the bare results suggest.
The 25-year-old Bekele holds a record 15 World Cross Country gold medals, the record number of individual golds (11), and the record total (25, comprising 15 gold, 8 silver, 2 bronze). Many of these were taken from the short-course championship, which was discontinued after 2006, and the record for the greatest number of classic long-course triumphs (5) is shared between the Ethiopian and two Kenyans: John Ngugi won five titles between 1986 and 1992 and Paul Tergat five in succession from 1995 to 1999.
While IAAF World Cross Country Championships date from only 1973, the scale of Bekele’s achievements can be measured in the context of races going back to 1903. It was in Scotland no less, on Hamilton Racecourse, on 28 March of that year, that the first International Cross Country Championships were held and, even through their long history, before the rebranding in 1973, no athlete managed more than four individual victories.
The three winners of four titles – Jack Holden (England), Alain Mimoun (France) and Gaston Roelants (Belgium) – all won at least one of their honours in Scotland, so Edinburgh would be a fitting place for Bekele to write the latest record-breaking chapter in the book of these championships. Should Tadese be looking for omens, he might wish to note that it is 25 years since an athlete won only one classic distance men’s title – a runner by the name of Bekele! Since Bekele Debele’s victory for Ethiopia in 1983, every champion has gone on to take at least a second title.
Of further encouragement to him, Tadese could be the world’s most efficient distance runner, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. After defeating Bekele last year, he underwent physiological testing which showed that he needed less oxygen per kilometre than other elite athletes who had been tested.
In his build-up to his title defence, the 26-year-old Tadese was not only beaten by Bekele in Edinburgh but by Uganda’s rising star, Moses Kipsiro, when both men recorded the same time at the Cross Internacional de Italica, in Seville, on 20 January. However, the world champion did win at the Cinque Mulini in San Vittore Olona on 9 February, although neither Bekele nor Kipsiro was in the field.
Kipsiro, together with Kenya’s Gideon Ngatuny and Ethiopia’s Abebe Dinkesa, spearheads the challenge to the two favourites. In a ceremony attended by the Parliament Speaker and State Sports Minister, the 21-year-old Kipsiro was named 2007 Uganda Sports Personality of the Year after taking the 5000m bronze medal at the World Championships in Osaka and winning his country’s only gold medal at the All Africa Games in Algiers.
Like Bekele, Kipsiro fell victim to the heat and humidity in Mombasa last year, failing to finish. After snow showers in Scotland this week, and little prospect of double-figure temperatures, there will be no overheating problems for the athletes, who will soon warm-up on the steep climbs of Haggis Knowe. Kipsiro missed the World Indoor Championships in Valencia to concentrate on Edinburgh and said after winning the Uganda Cross Country title on 9 February: “My mission is to return with some silverware in Edinburgh.”
Also talking a confident game is Ngatuny, who said after winning the Kenya Prisons Championship on 9 February: “I will certainly be on the team to Edinburgh and I can assure Bekele and Tadese that they must prepare well to beat me.” Ngatuny, 4th last year, was as good as his word on the first promise – winning the Kenyan National Cross Country in Nairobi on 1 March to clinch his place in the team. Having fulfilled one of his predictions, can the athlete whose name is the Masai word for lion live up to his roar that he will be a contender in Edinburgh?
For Kenya, this year’s championships are especially important. For, as Isaiah Kiplagat, the chairman of Athletics Kenya, said after the team was named: “We have not won the senior men’s 12km individual title in 8 years (since Tergat in 1999) and we expect that the senior men’s team selected can win both the individual and team titles.” Furthermore, and bearing in mind Kenya’s weak showing at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia, he called for the athletes to show that they have recovered from the fall-out of post-election violence.
During this time of violence the domestic cross country season was disrupted, Lucas Sang (1988 Olympic 400m runner) and Wesley Ngetich (2:12.10 marathon runner) were killed, and world marathon champion Luke Kibet survived attacks on his life. “We should show the world that we have returned to normalcy and winning will be part of the reconciliation exercise,” Kiplagat added.
Kenya’s incredible sequence of 18 team titles (1986-2003) having been ended by Ethiopia (2004 and 2005 team champions), they are seeking to rebuild with a third in a row in Edinburgh. At their camp in Embu, they have reportedly been paying particular attention to their finishing speed and, together with Ngatunyi, top performances are expected of Bernard Kipyego (3rd in 2007), Hosea Macharinyang (5th in 2007) and 20-year-old Leonard Komon, 4th in the 2007 junior men’s race and winner of circuit races in Elgoibar, Spain, and Hannut, Belgium, in January.
As winner of the Ethiopian trial, Dinkesa is expected to be Bekele’s closest compatriot, although the team also includes Sileshi Sihine, the 10,000m runner-up in Osaka and double World Cross Country individual medallist, with silver from 2006 and bronze from 2004. Another double senior long course individual medallist, Gebre Gebremariaim (3rd, 2003; 2nd, 2004) adds further experience.
In the absence of Mo Farah, 10th last year, the host Great Britain team does not have a top-20 contender, so the loudest support will be for Australia’s Craig Mottram, an ‘honorary’ Brit because his mother was born in Scotland. Mottram told the Scottish media: “I’m almost one of you guys – my mum’s from Aberfeldy (Perthshire)”. With Farah, United States trials winner Dathan Ritzenhein and seven-times European champion Sergiy Lebid (Ukraine) all missing, Mottram may be a lone non African near the front of the field.
Footnote: In contrast to the tragic circumstances surrounding Bekele’s 2005 victory in St Etienne/St Galmier, France, two months after the death of his fiancée, Alem Techale, the multiple-champion will be watched in Edinburgh by his wife of four months. He and Danawit Gebregziabher, an Ethiopian movie actress, were married in November.
While a Scot, Jim Brown, was the first winner of the IAAF junior title in 1973, the last 16 winners have been either Kenyan or Ethiopian. In the last four years these two nationalities have swept all the medals in the men’s junior race, and it would be an event if anyone broke that monopoly in 2008.
Expected to lead Kenya’s challenge on this occasion will be Levy Matebo Omari, who won Kenyan National Championship, and runner-up Mathew Kipkoech Kisorio, who is one of two brothers in the team (the other is Peter Kimeli Some). They are the sons of Some Muge, 3rd in the 1983 senior men’s race.
Ethiopian interest centres on Ibrahim Jeilan, the World junior 10,000m champion who failed to finish last year and then made no significant impression on the track. But he is on the comeback trail after winning the national trial, when he said: “I had some personal problems which I do not want to speak about. The problems still exist but I hope they can be solved.” Trial runner-up Ayele Abshiro is perhaps the other main challenger for the junior title.
If we were to consider the seemingly impossible it is from Uganda, who have taken a smattering of junior medals in the last decade, that a non-Kenyan or Ethiopian medallist is most likely to emerge. In their junior championships this year, World Mountain Running champion Geoffrey Kusuro beat last year’s World junior fifth placer Benjamin Kiplagat, and both athletes are included in a strong squad for Edinburgh. Uganda has taken five bronze medals in the team contest in recent years (2000-2005).
The only other nations with the potential to seriously mix it with Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda are the fast improving Eritrea (team: 1 silvers ‘07, 1 bronze ‘06) and Qatar (team: 1 bronze ‘05), who have been on the team podium in the last three years.
David Powell for the IAAF
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HPTC athletes in Edinburgh
Two athletes on the Entry List - Cleveland FORDE (GUY) and John THUO (KEN) - are being coached at the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Eldoret, Kenya. They each are benefitting from Olympic Solidarity Scholarships.