It has been 25 years since a European athlete last finished in the top 10 in the U20 men’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. The last individual medallist – a gold one at that – from Europe came 10 years before that.
But Jakob Ingebrigtsen (1500m world rank: 8; 5000m world rank: 14) could be capable of rewriting both of those statistics when he lines up for the U20 men’s race in Aarhus.
The 18-year-old Norwegian caused a stir last year when he won the 1500m and 5000m at the senior European Championships in Berlin, setting a continental U20 record of 13:17.06 in the latter. One month prior he had set a European U20 1500m record of 3:31.18 in Monaco.
After winning his third consecutive European U20 cross-country title in December, he beat world indoor record-holder Samuel Tefera over 1500m in Dusseldorf in February and went on to win 3000m gold and 1500m silver at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow.
Ingebrigtsen boasts the fastest track PBs of the field and has considerably more international racing experience. But he has never raced farther than 6.3km and could become something of a target if some of the stronger nations utilise team tactics.
All 39 individual medals on offer in the U20 men's race from the past 13 editions have been shared between Kenya (23), Ethiopia (10) and Uganda (6). The same three nations once again look poised to battle it out for individual and team medals.
Unsurprisingly, the Kenyan team appears to be the strongest. Led by national U20 cross-country champion Samuel Chebolei (5000m world rank: 52), the team also includes Commonwealth Youth Games 3000m champion Edwin Kiplangat Bett, who finished eighth in the U20 men’s race two years ago in Kampala, and Leonard Bett (3000m SC world rank: 11), the world U18 steeplechase champion.
Leonard Bett, who finished third at Kenyan Cross Country Championships, is the most accomplished of the Kenyan squad. He is the world U20 steeplechase silver medallist and made a couple of appearances on the IAAF Diamond League circuit last year, clocking a PB of 8:16.97 in Birmingham to top the 2018 world U20 list.
The Kenyan team also includes Cleophas Kandie (3000m SC world rank: 78), who took silver behind Bett in the steeplechase at the 2017 World U18 Championships, and the unheralded Emmanuel Kiprotich Korir, who finished a surprise second in the U20 race at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships.
But despite Kenya’s undeniable depth, they have struggled – relatively speaking, of course – in the U20 men’s race at recent editions of the World Cross. They won 23 of the 24 team titles on offer between 1988 and 2011, but haven’t had an individual winner since then.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, has won two of the three most recent team crowns, and they will once again be a big threat to Kenya in the team stakes.
Their biggest U20 star, Selemon Barega, is contesting the senior men’s race in Aarhus, leaving Tsegay Kidanu, the runner-up in the U20 men’s race at the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships, to lead their team.
Milkesa Mengesha, who finished fifth in the U20 men’s race at last year’s African Cross Country Championships and fourth in the 3000m at the 2017 World U18 Championships, is another of Ethiopia’s leading contenders.
Uganda’s Oscar Chelimo (5000m world rank: 69) came away from last year’s Youth Olympic Games with a bronze medal after finishing first in the 3000m and third in the cross-country race. He is also the African U20 3000m silver medallist and finished seventh in a high-quality 5000m race at last year’s World U20 Championships.
Chelimo also won in Valladoid earlier this year, finished a close second in Amorebieta, and placed fifth at the Cinque Mulini, just behind world steeplechase silver medallist Soufiane El Bakkali.
He is joined on the Ugandan team by Hosea Kiplangat and Dan Chebet. Kiplangat recently narrowly beat Chebet to the national U20 cross-country title, but Chebet is the world junior mountain running champion and could find the testing course in Aarhus to his liking.
Although Eritrea is yet to win an individual medal in the U20 men’s race, they have earned team medals at five of the past nine editions. Their team this year is led by Yohans Kifle, who ran 28:31 for 10km in December.
Burundi’s Jean De Dieu Butoyi finished fourth in the cross-country race at last year’s Youth Olympic Games, so can be expected to feature near the front of the pack in Aarhus.
National U20 cross-country champion Shuaib Aljabaly leads a strong US team. Canada’s NACAC U20 cross-country champion Evan Burke and New Zealand’s Oceania U20 cross-country champion Murdoch McIntyre carry the hopes of their respective continents.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF