MonteCarloWhen you establish a sporting reputation as quickly and as supreme as has Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele since 2001, it should come as no surprise that your rivals will focus all their attentions on knocking you back down to size. There is nothing unfair about it, it is just a reality of life.
Bekele versus the world
Therefore at this weekend’s 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Brussels, Belgium, the distance running world will be divided into two camps, Bekele and the rest of the world.
Bekele, the reigning double short and long course champion is entered for both races in Brussels, and while the annual question of whether or not he will actually run both distances is again in the air, the more interesting topic in this Olympic year is the 21 year-old’s growing invincibility on all surfaces.
Should the World 10,000m champion stride around Brussels’ Park Van Laken in the same confident manner as he did twelve months before at the Avenches course at Lausanne – La Broye, then the world’s best distance runners might as wellcrown Bekele with the Olympic laurels at the same time.
One race or two for Bekele in Brussels, it really doesn’t matter. The Kenyans, Tanzanians, Moroccans and perhaps even Bekele’s illustrious Ethiopian team-mates must now be aware that another soul destroying victory in Brussels would at the very least tighten the World indoor 5000m record breakers’ psychological grip over the Olympic Games with just five months to go before Athens.
Unless injury intervenes - and Bekele has been prone to Achilles problems in the past - Brussels is perhaps the last redoubt for the rest of the world as it tries to repel his Olympic assault.
So to Bekele’s challengers…
In the short race, of his team-mates, last year’s long course bronze medallist Gebre Gebremariam is the only other athlete of the Ethiopia squad also attempting to double in Brussels. The Junior champion of 2002 has had a great winter taking the long course win at last month’s East African Championships, to go on top of earlier European circuit wins in San Sebastian and Valladolid.
Kipchoge is Kenya's biggest gun
Yet it is the impressive Kenyan arsenal that Bekele must fear the most. In the short race, there is Abraham Chebii who out-sprinted him over 5000m at last summer’s Rome Golden League, and Kenya can also count on twice World short course champion (1998 & 2000) John Kibowen.
However, the biggest gun that Ethiopia’s East African neighbours can bring to the field is World 5000m champion Eliud Kipchoge who will run the Long race in Brussels. Like Chebii, Kipchoge holds the rare distinction of having out-sprinted Bekele, though its true the Ethiopian had already run and won the World 10,000m when the now 19 year-old beat him in Paris last summer over 5000m.
Pedigree is everything in distance running and Kipchoge comes to Brussels as the reigning World Junior champion - a title that Bekele won in 2001 - and recently romped home in the Kenyan trials. However, if Kipchoge shows even a glimpse of weakness then his challenge for gold in Brussels will be as unsuccessful as when he was beaten by Ethiopia’s Sileshi Sihine (Newcastle 3 Jan) and Isaac Songok (Rift Valley 31 Jan) earlier this winter.
Sihine could be outside bet to create an upset
Songok runs the short race this weekend and so will pose no ‘home’ threat to Kipchoge’s ambitions, however, Sihine is entered for the long race and perhaps could give both Bekele and Kipchoge something to think about. As well as his Newcastle win over Kipchoge and former five-time champion Paul Tergat (who is not running in Brussels), Sihine also was a solid winner at the end of last year in Venta de Banos (Spain). If there is an outside bet for gold in Brussels, then the World 10,000m bronze medallist could be the long course stalker.
Returning again to the Kenyan challenge, there are also the 2001 World 5000m and 10,000m track champions to consider, respectively Richard Limo and Charles Kamathi, and Commonwealth 10,000m winner Wilberforce Talel, all of whom will race the long distance in Brussels.
Shaheen - lacking cross credentials?
Former Kenyan (Stephen Cherono) Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, the World 3000m Steeplechase champion heads a strong national squad in the short race. However, his cross country credentials this winter are largely missing, as though he recently won the World Military title in Lebanon, he was burnt out of the running in the Nairobi IAAF permit race (which also doubled as the Kenyan Trials race) by the combination of Kipchoge’s brilliance and team tactics of his former compatriots.
Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop is another of the many variables. The junior silver medallist behind Kipchoge last year, will again compete in the junior race but is also entered for the men’s senior short race.
Can we look elsewhere in the world for medal potential in either the men’s short or long course races? The stark answer is probably not, though never discount Tanzania’s Fabiano Joseph, the World Half Marathon silver medallist, Spain’s 2002 European steeplechase and 10,000m champions respectively Antonio Jimenez (short) and Jose Manuel Martinez (long), or Morocco’s Abderrahim Goumri who finished in the top 15 of both races in Lausanne last year.
The two team titles will of course be decided between Kenya and Ethiopia once more, with possibly the Tanzanians, or Moroccans, or the French or the Spanish teams in the running for the bronze. As with the individual battle the Qatari’s could also be in with a shout.
- On reading these previews please note that until Friday's Technical Meeting has taken place, all team line-ups retain a certain fluidity.