The self-styled city of sport Bydgoszcz will play host to the 40th edition of the World Cross-Country Championships but despite the city’s reputation for hosting major championships athletics, the venue might not be the most popular choice. The 2010 edition was also staged in the central Polish town and an uninspiring course as well as a sparse crowd didn’t do much to boost life back into a fledgling event. This point is further illustrated by the championships now being held biannually and Bydgoszcz being the only city to express an interest in hosting the event this year.
In better news though, there will be live coverage on the BBC for the first time since 2009 and the Kenyan hegemony of the 2010 edition should be tamed as the Ethiopians, albeit without Tirunesh Dibaba, arrive buoyed after a much better Olympic Games than their Rift Valley rivals and ready to challenge the Kenyans, who have dominated recent editions.
Kenya swept the board when Bydgoszcz held the 2010 championships but don’t expect the same dominance this year. Their men’s senior team isn’t anywhere near as strong as it could be as Philemon Rono and Timothy Kiptoo, first and second at the Kenyan trials last month, haven’t even broke 13:20 for 5000m. However, they still finished ahead of a very competitive field at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi containing more credentialed track exponents such as sub-27 10,000m runner Geoffrey Kirui and two-time world junior steeplechase champion Jonathan Ndiku, who are also on the Kenyan team.
On the other hand, the Ethiopian team includes many of their top names from the track including Imane Merga, who won the last championships in Punta Umbria in 2011. The reigning champion might start as a slight worry for the Ethiopians as he dropped out of the trial race but he dismissed these fears by accounting for a hard block of training in the build-up as the reason behind his DNF.
The team also includes sub-2:05 marathon-runner Feyisa Lilesa, who won the Ethiopian trials in Addis Ababa last month and Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Tariku Bekele, who makes his first appearance at this event since 2007 where the debilitating conditions forced him, as well as his brother, to drop out of the race in Mombasa.
Uganda took a rare medal in the team race behind Kenya and Ethiopia in 2011 and their leading athlete Moses Kipsiro will be in contention for his third individual medal after taking silver in 2009 and bronze in 2010.
Eritrea will be without the services of 2007 champion Zersenay Tadese but 2010 silver medallist Teklemariam Medhin could feature in the medals again.
The absence of Tirunesh Dibaba opens up the women’s race but while this is a blow for the Ethiopians, they will still be hoping a green-and-yellow vested athlete can win this title for the first time since 2008 when Dibaba won her third world cross-country title in Edinburgh.
The leading aspirant is arguably sub-9:10 steeplechaser Hiwot Ayalew, who has won all of her cross-country races this winter, including a nine-second victory in the trials last month. She’s joined on the team by perennial world cross-country medallist Meselech Melkamu, who is preparing for the Virgin London Marathon in April, and Olympic 10,000m fifth-placer Belaynesh Oljira.
The Kenyan women’s team also has a new look to it as reigning champion Vivian Cheruiyot and four-time senior medallist Linet Masai have both chosen to give this event a miss while African champion Mercy Cherono was dropped by the head-coach after suffering from a stomach infection.
First and second at the trials, Margaret Muriuki and Irene Cheptai are now expected to mount the Kenyan challenge along with Emily Chebet, who was the unexpected winner of the gold medal when the championships were held in Bydgoszcz in 2010.
One of the leading non-African challengers is Fionnuala Britton and while it will be too much to expect her to replicate the achievements of past champion Sonia O’Sullivan, the two-time European cross-country champion should challenge for a top-ten finish.
The British team has an outside chance of capturing a bronze medal in the team race as the squad contains Lauren Howarth, who was the leading European finisher in the junior race in 2009, National and Inter-Counties winner Louise Damen and former European junior cross-country champion Stephanie Twell.
Junior women’s race
Emelia Gorecka was the youngest participant in the junior race when she finished 23rd in Bydgoszcz but three years later, the AFD athlete will be one of the most experienced competitors on the start-line and the 19-year-old’s ambition is to cap her illustrious junior career with a top-10 finish in this race.
The Mick Woods-coached athlete was the top European finisher in 15th in 2011 and since then, Gorecka has won medals on the track at the European Junior Championships and World Junior Championships last year, proving the Brits can still compete with the East Africans. She also won the European junior cross-country title in 2011 and although she lost her crown to the 1500m specialist Amela Terzic last year, the 6km course in Bydgoszcz should suit Gorecka more than the 4km course did in Szentendre.
Suffice to say, the East Africans will surely decide the medals between themselves and while the Ethiopians have a stronger squad overall, the Kenyan team is spearheaded by reigning champion and world junior 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon, who won the Kenyan trials by eight-seconds from world junior 5000m bronze medallist Agnes Chebet.
The Ethiopians still come to this race with real aspirations of winning this title again and Buze Diriba has the credentials to challenge Kipyegon. After winning the world junior 5000m title from team-mate Ruti Aga, who is another of the leading contenders, Diriba set PBs at 3000m of 8:39.65 and 5000m of 14:53.06 which are unmatched against this field. However, she was beaten in the trials by Alemitu Haroye, who still has two seasons left in the under-20 division.
Junior men’s race
Ethiopia must surely win this race for the first time since 2009 as their squad includes an athlete who could have challenged for the gold medal in the senior race. That athlete is 18-year-old Hagos Gebrhiwet, the holder of the world junior 5000m record at 12:47.53 which is some six seconds faster than Mo Farah’s UK record! As expected, he comfortably won the trials and more importantly, he also beat Galen Rupp in a 3000m race in Boston in another world junior record of 7:32.87.
Their team also includes reigning world junior 5000m and 10,000m champions Muktar Edris and Yigrem Demelash (moved into the senior race) and the latter finished second to Lilesa in the senior trials race.
The Kenyans aren’t particularly renowned internationally but their squad is headed by Ronald Chebolei, who has to be respected after winning the Kenyan trials. It will be interesting to see how Conseslus Kipruto fares though, as he could even feature at the World Championships on the track this summer. Although he was only sixth at the trials and some 30-seconds behind the winner, the 18-year-old is a huge prospect in the steeplechase as he won the world junior title last year and boasts a PB of 8:03.49.