MonteCarloDue to the most tragic of circumstances one of the acknowledged constants of international athletics, the cross country invincibility of Kenenisa Bekele, will for the first time in four years be seriously questioned next weekend at the 33rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, St-Etienne/St-Galmier, France (19/20 March).
Kenenisa Bekele, the Ethiopian distance running star, World and Olympic 10,000m Champion is just 22 years old but already he is on the short list of the greatest cross country runners of all-time.
His third straight World Championships long race/short race double completed in March 2004 is the stuff of legend. As a junior competitor in 2001, not only did he easily win that title, but he took the silver medal in the senior short race event. Bekele was also instrumental in leading the Ethiopians to the team gold medal in the long race in 2004, ending the greatest achievement in annual international team championships, the Kenyan senior men’s winning streak which spanned 18 years from 1986 through 2003.
During his cross country career Bekele has usually separated himself from his closest pursuer by a wide gap at the finish. Consider also that in several of his races Bekele coasted to the finish once victory was secured, compromising what could have been even greater victory margins.
Virtually gone unnoticed, however, is that Bekele has put together an extraordinary individual cross country winning streak. Prior to his arriving on the scene, the Belgian distance star Emiel Puttemans held the top, winning 11 straight times between March 1974 and March 1975.
With his season opening win at the Cross Internacional de Venta de Baños this past 19 December, Bekele now has 20 in a row. However since the tragic death of his fiancée on 4 January, Bekele has not run any other cross country races. The Ethiopian Federation even named him to their squad of athletes for both the short and long races for St-Etienne/St-Galmier without his having to contest any qualifying races.
Moreover, Bekele has been off form in the past two months and currently has an atypical two-race losing streak after suffering a pair of indoor track losses at 3000 metres and 2 Miles.
In terms of both the short and long races Ethiopia will of course be well served by a quality squad whatever happens to the reigning three-time double champion. Last year’s double silver medallist Gebre Gebremariam has again been selected for both contests – the short (4km - Sat 19) and the long (12km - Sun 20) – and another safe double points scorer would seem to be Dejene Birhanu. The 24-year-old was ‘only’ 11th in the short race last year but finished 5th in the Olympic 5000m and won the Great North Run last autumn. Just selected for the long race is Abebe Dinkesa the Ethiopian Trials winner, and included on the short race team sheet is last year’s World Cross Country bronze medallist Maregu Zewdie.
Yet whatever the strength of the Ethiopian side so much of their spirit seems to be built around the invincible cross country mystic of Kenenisa Bekele that the Kenyans, smarting after the loss of their men’s team title in Brussels, must surely smell in the questions surrounding his fitness the possibility of revenge in St-Etienne/St-Galmier.
Kenyan runners seldom double at the World Cross for the simple reason that they hold their trial races all on the same day and so unless the selectors relent they are never given the possibility to qualify for more than one race. So barring illness, accidents, injury and fatigue we then can point clearly to the main Kenyan challengers at both distances.
World 5000m track champion and a former winner of the World Junior Cross Country title, Eliud Kipchoge is in the cross country form of his life. Reports from all his races have described the Olympic 5000m bronze medallist as floating effortlessly to victory. The 20-year-old runs in the long race where the Kenyans last struck individual gold in 1999 thanks to Paul Tergat. The rest of the Kenyan line-up reads like an international, let alone national, ‘who’s who’ of distance running – Charles Kamathi, John Cheruiyot Korir, Abraham Cherono, Moses Mosop and Wilberforce Talel.
Equally impressive in the Kenyan Championships was Isaac Songok’s win in the short race in which he showed a clean pair of heels to (in order) Sammy Kipketer, Brimin Kipruto and Abraham Chebii. All are named in the short race squad of six, though there are currently some injury rumours concerning Kipruto, the Olympic 3000m Steeplechase silver medallist.
Last year in Brussels the Gulf state of Qatar bruised a few Kenyan egos when their team led home by former Kenyans Abdullah Ahmad Hassan (4th) and Saif Saaeed Shaheen (5th), the World Steeplechase champion, split the East African team monopoly in two, winning the short race silver behind Ethiopia but ahead of Kenya. Much of that Qatari squad including Hassan and Shaheen return this year, and adding to their potency is the talent of James Kwalia C’Kurui, the second fastest junior miler of all time. A full six man Qatari line-up will contest both short and long races in St-Etienne/St-Galmier.
Tanzania (short & long) and Uganda (long) can also be relied upon to put on a good team showing, though it is perhaps their individual stars respectively Fabiano Joseph and Boniface Kiprop who will make most impact.
Note. Tanzania's John Yuda has withdrawn from the championships due to the sudden death of his father.
Finishing one place in front of Kiprop in the Olympic 10,000m last summer was Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadesse who thereby won the bronze, and he is his country main chance of success in the long race.
Of the other names to consider, there is in the short race, Bahrain’s Rashid Ramzi, who was the 1500m find of last summer’s track season, Kevin Sullivan who led home Canada’s 6th place team finish in 2004, USA’s Adam Goucher, and a talented squad of Spanish runners who include double European Indoor bronze medallist Reyes Estevez who was in sparkling form in Madrid (UPDATE 17/03: withdrawn ill). Unfortunately, the European Indoor 3000m winner ahead of the Spaniard, Ireland’s Alistair Cragg, has had to withdraw from the World Cross with a back injury.
In the long race, Craig Mottram of Australia, sub-13mins Area record holder for the 5000m and World Cup 3000m winner, leads a full Australian team. Hosts France must look for honours to joint-European 3000m Steeplechase record holder Bob Tahri, marathon exponent Driss El Himer and El-Mokhtar Benhari, who was one of France’s European Championship winning team last December. The Spanish also have assembled another good squad which includes European Cross silver medallist Juan Carlos de la Ossa, European 10,000m champion Jose Manuel Martinez (UPDATE 17/03: withdrawn injured), and Steeplechaser Eliseo Martin.
Chris Turner for the IAAF
with assistance from Marty Post regarding Bekele’s win streak
NOTE – when reading these previews please understand that until Friday afternoon’s Technical Meeting (18 March) has taken place, all team line-ups remain very fluid.