More than thirty thousand spectators are expected to line the route of tomorrow's 6th IAAF/VSZ World Half Marathon Championships. They will be there to watch an exciting race, but above all to cheer on local athlete Robert Stefko.
The 29 year old Slovak was born in Kosice, a city of some 250,000 inhabitants, lying on the plains a few kilometres from the Tatra Mountains, and he has come home to take part in the greatest event of his career.
Stefko doesn't lack the qualities which will be needed to win - he has personal bests of 27:42.98 in the 10,000m and 61:46 in the half marathon - but then again, he will not lack competition tomorrow.
Athletes from 45 countries are competing and among them the world's best, led by Moses Tanui (KEN). No-one has ever covered the 21.097km distance faster than Tanui's 1993 mark of 59:47.
Not that many people can match his athletics career: at 32 years of age, Moses Tanui has been world champion in the 10,000m (1991 in Tokyo). In 1993 he was beaten in the same event in Stuttgart by Haile Gebrselassie, in a memorable sprint, where Tanui unfortunately lost a shoe.
This year, Tanui will head a formidable Kenyan team determined to win back the title they lost last year - after four successive victories - to Italy. Stefano Baldini, the defending world champion will head an Italian team which may be much changed from last year's, but which still is not short on ambition. The Spanish are also fielding a particularly strong team, with marathon runner Alejandro Gomez, as are South Africa and Zimbabwe.
It will be a closely fought battle for the individual title - the winner will receive this year, for the first time, $40,000 with prizes all the way down to sixth place with $5,000, and matching amounts for the women's race - with stiff competition between 26 year old Moroccan-born Mohammed Mourit, who now has Belgian nationality, Kenyans Shem Kororia and Kenneth Cheruiyot and, of course, Stefano Baldini.
The return of Elana Meyer (RSA) - who won the title in Oslo in 1994 - will add some spice to the women's race, where Tegla Loroupe will head the first ever Kenyan women's team. Loroupe will be facing up to German marathon runner Katrin Dorre, Rocio Rios (ESP) and Petra Wassiluk (GER).
Replying to journalists' questions in a pre-event press conference, IAAF President Primo Nebiolo underlined that this event - the last major competition of 1997 - promises to be as exciting as the rest of the season.
An exceptional season, recalled Nebiolo, - which has included the World Indoors in Paris and the World Championships in Athens, the World Cross country Championships in Turin, the World Race Walking Cup in Podebrady and the IAAF Grand Prix Final in Fukuoka - and which has marked another important moment in the continual effort to modernise the sport of Athletics, with the introduction of cash awards.