Championship racing asks more questions of those seeking to win than does non-championship competition. And no championship is a more searching test than the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
Here are just some questions posed by the senior men’s race at the IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019:
- can Geoffrey Kamworor extend his cross-country dominance to five years;
- can Joshua Cheptegei put behind the horror of his last half-lap in Kampala two years ago and take a first senior title for Uganda;
- can Cheptegei’s teammate Jacob Kiplimo graduate direct from a junior championship triumph at home to become world senior champion;
- can Kiplimo or Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega win the senior world championship and become the youngest-ever senior men’s champion;
- can any other individual or team hang tough with the East African individuals and teams.
There are others; no doubt some have been overlooked. The World Cross has a storied history of producing the totally unexpected. Perhaps the Aarhus course, designed around the Moesgaard Museum up and down the roof of which it ascends and descends in its steepest climb, will conspire to confound pre-race expectations.
As defending champion, let’s take Kamworor (marathon world rank: 31) first. Not only will he be going for his third straight senior title at cross-country in Aarhus, but also for a sixth straight world title in six years, his two previous cross-country victories in Guiyang (2015) and Kampala (2017), augmented by world half marathon titles in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Kamworor has already joined the group of men to have won at least two world cross-country titles. A further triumph this weekend would put him in the select company of those to have won three or more – Kenenisa Bekele (six), John Ngugi and Paul Tergat (five) and Carlos Lopes (three). He finished only fifth in the Kenyan championship, won by Amos Kirui, but neither the Kenyan, nor Ethiopian, trial has proven a reliable guide to relative finishing order at recent world championships.
Expect Kamworor to present on the start line at Aarhus in excellent shape. He deserves the status of ‘man to beat’.
Cheptegei (10,000m world rank: 19; road running world rank: 13) looked to have accomplished that task in Kampala two years ago when he dashed clear in the later stages of the race. With one 2km lap to go, he led by 12 seconds. Within minutes, however, he was a spent force, undone by his own impetuosity. He staggered home in 30th place. He is a much better runner now, however, as testified to by his 5000m/10,000 double in the strong track distance events at last year’s Commonwealth Games.
Kiplimo (10,000m world rank: 4; 5000m world rank: 31) won the U20 title in Kampala. He now comes to Denmark as the form runner after a string of 2018-19 victories in the IAAF Permit events and other major cross-country competitions. His win in the Ugandan championship – where he beat Cheptegei - was his seventh major cross-country victory of the season. At just over 18 years and four months old on race day, he would become the youngest-ever champion should he win and the first still eligible for the U20 race.
Barega (5000m world rank: 1), of course, dragged track 5000 back into sub-12:45 territory for the first time in years when he won the Diamond League final in Brussels last year in 12:43.02. With a 20 January, 2000 birthdate, he is just over 19 years and two months old. He, too, could displace Kenya’s Japhet Korir (19y 267d) as youngest champion in 2013. Korir, in turn, was a few days younger than Kenenisa Bekele when the Ethiopian superstar won the first of his five short-course (19y 283d) and six long-course (19y 284d) victories.
Barega’s cross-country form is not emphatic, with second-place finishes in the Ethiopian championship and the Elgoibar IAAF permit race in January.
The winner at Elgoibar was Rhonex Kipruto (10,000m world rank: 7), the world U20 champion at 10,000m. Kipruto is one of several athletes, outside the four mentioned above, who could press for the individual medals on Saturday (he could likewise become the youngest-ever champion). Others include Mogos Tuemay, winner of the Ethiopian championship, Eritrea’s Aron Kifle, fifth in Kampala, and Ethiopia’s Bonsa Dida (marathon world rank: 248), who was tenth last time.
Kenya will be keen to end a run of three straight Ethiopian wins in the teams race (which, in its turn, snapped a run of six straight for Kenya). Kenya went 1-2 in Kampala, with Kamworor followed in by Leonard Barsoton, but the Ethiopians packed their scoring four into the next six finishers to edge their rivals by one point.
Uganda will certainly be a threat to both traditional powers, with both Cheptegei and Kiplimo likely to be in, or on the heels of, the medallists. Eritrea and Burundi are likely to be close up.
Australia, Great Britain, Japan and the USA look to be the best chances of a non-African team pushing into the top six.
Australia, which will host the next championships in Bathurst in 2021, has been weakened by the withdrawal of Patrick Tiernan (13th in Kampala) and the non-availability of Morgan McDonald, winner of the US NCAA title late last year. Someone needs to push up towards the top 10 to anchor a good team result, which could happen if Stewart McSweyn (5000m world rank: 10; 10,000m world rank: 10) can translate his outstanding outdoor and indoor track performances into a strong result over the country.
The US, likewise, is missing its highest placer from Kampala (Sam Chelanga, 11), but Leonard Korir (road running world rank: 38), national champion Shadrack Kipchirchir (10,000m world rank: 28) and Stanley Kebenei (3000m SC world rank: 53) all finished in the 20s last time, so one may step up to improve on their fifth place then.
Eighth place in Kampala took a score of 156 points, an average placing of 39. Something similar seems sure to be required around Aarhus.
Len Johnson for the IAAF