Joseph Ebuya crosses the finish line to complete Kenya's sweep of all titles in Bydgoszcz 2010 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Atapuerca, Spain

Spotlight on world champions Ebuya and Chebet as Cross Country Permit Series kicks off in Atapuerca

The 7th ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’ will mark the beginning of the IAAF Cross Country Permit Series 2010/11 on Sunday (7).

To celebrate the rise of the event to the maximum status, the organisers (Diputación de Burgos) have brought together a star-studded line-up with no fewer than three out of the first five men from last year’s World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz in contention including the gold and silver medallists in the guise of Kenya’s Joseph Ebuya and Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin.

Ebuya, 23, brought the individual men’s (long course) title back to his country for the first time since Paul Tergat’s success in Belfast 1999. The Nyahururu-native star has been a regular performer in the Spanish cross-country season over the past few years; back in 2007 he grabbed three solid wins in Llodio, Soria and Alcobendas in a gap of 14 days but he should be eager to avenge his loss to Spain’s Sergio Sanchez at his last appearance on Spanish soil last 20 December in Venta de Banos.

After his brilliant cross country campaign, Ebuya – a 12:51.00 5000m performer – didn’t enjoy a particularly successful track season which was topped by a 13:11.09 5000m run in Gateshead but he bounced back strongly in late October to take an overwhelming 10-mile win in Portsmouth, UK, well ahead of Qatar’s world 3000m steeplechase record-holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen; 45:16 – a UK all-comers' best – and 46:37 their respective clockings.

Ebuya will defend the Kenyan chances alongside Kiprono Menjo, who produced his best ever track season last summer with respective PBs of 12:55.95 (5000m) and 26:56.74 (10,000m) prior to a half-marathon season's best of 1:01:42 in Lisbon in late September.

As for Medhin, the 21-year-old Eritrean similarly made a major breakthrough last March at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships by landing the silver medal six seconds adrift of Ebuya. Working under the guidance of Jeronimo Bravo in Madrid, Medhin is a training mate of his fellow Eritrean Zersenay Tadese while his progression seems unstoppable since he placed 23th in Edinburgh 2008 and ninth in Amman in 2009.

Medhin’s countryman Samuel Tsegay should be in the mix too after finishing a creditable fifth at last month’s World Half Marathon Championships in Nanning with a 1:01:13 clocking. Completing the Eritrean squad are Kidane Tadese, Kiflom Sium and Tesfayohannes Mesfin.

Powerful Spanish armada in attendance

Sunday’s 8925m event will also act as a first stepping-stone for the Spanish athletes targeting the European Cross Country Championships to be held in Albufeira on 12 December. The field comprises the current European champion Alemayehu Bezabeh, European 5000m silver medallist Jesús España and Sergio Sánchez who took silver at the last World Indoors in Doha over 3000m last March.

Bezabeh, 24, shares his preparations between Madrid and his native Ethiopia; he managed the victory in Atapuerca two years ago but had to settle for second last year behind Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam. Despite setting a stunning Spanish 5000m record of 12:57.25 in Oslo last summer, Bezabeh failed later to make the podium at the Barcelona Europeans as he finished a disappointing seventh over his specialist 5000m event.

España has set himself the goal of placing as high as possible in Albufeira. Although he has never been an accomplished cross-country specialist, the 32-year-old Spaniard already came sixth at the Europeans in Toro three years ago, and so Atapuerca will act as a first dress-rehearsal thinking of Albufeira.

Chebet-Dibaba showdown

The 7275m women’s contest should witness a fabulous clash between Kenya’s world cross-country champion Emily Chebet and Ethiopia’s world junior cross-country and 5000m gold medallist Genzebe Dibaba.

The 24-year-old Chebet startled the world when she surprisingly became gold medallist in Bydgoszcz ahead of the likes of her fellow Kenyan Linet Masai and Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba among others. Chebet’s previous background only included an unnoticed ninth place at the Osaka World Championships in the 10,000m but the Kericho-born talent stamped her authority on a thrilling sprint to lead the Kenyan squad to the team gold.

Sunday’s will be Chebet’s first outing in Spain since 2005 and her first cross-country appearance on Spanish soil. To maintain her status as world number one, she will have to beat the youngest of the Dibaba sisters, Genzebe, a two-time world junior cross-country champion. The 19-year-old is the defending champion in Atapuerca and her face-to-face with Chebet promises to be loud.

The fight for the remaining place on the podium should also be fierce as several top Europeans are in the entry list in the guise of Portugal’s newly-minted European 5000m bronze medallist Sara Moreira, reigning European cross-country bronze medallist Adrienne Herzog of the Netherlands, and Ireland’s European indoor 3000m bronze medallist Mary Cullen.

The local athletes should also be a factor on Sunday thanks to the presence of European 1500m champion Nuria Fernandez and European cross-country silver medallist Rosa Morato while world 3000m steeplechase champion Marta Dominguez announced yesterday that she is pregnant and will miss the entire 2011 season. She plans to resume training next summer in her build up for the London 2012 Olympics. 

South Africa’s Dinahrose Lebogang Phalula (15th in Bydgoszcz), Australia’s former world cross-country champion Benita Willis and Btissam Lakhouad, who ran 3:59.35 for a Moroccan 1500m record last summer, will try to complete a quality top-ten.

Weather forecasters predict a cloudy day on Sunday with 75% of rain likelihood and a temperature range between 7ºC and 9ºC by the time of the event.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF