AMMAN, March 28 – Athletics powerhouses Ethiopia and Kenya shared the spoils at the World Cross-Country Championships here on Saturday as African runners swept the medals board.
Gebre-egziabher Gebremariam made up for the absence of compatriot Kenenisa Bekele, the defending champion and multi-medal winner, to win the senior men’s event.
With Ethiopia’s defending champion Tirunesh Dibaba also absent in the women’s race, Florence Kiplagat claimed the first victory for Kenya since Hellen Chepngeno in 1994.
Kenya topped Ethiopia in the overall team podiums for both events, Eritrea taking third in the men’s and Portugal in the women’s.
In testing conditions around a largely clay course at the Bisharat Golf Course that featured a range of differing gradients and a strong headwind in places, both senior races came down to dramatic sprint finishes.
Gebremariam clocked 35min 02sec over the men’s 12km course, with Ugandan Moses Kipsiro and 2007 champion Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea both timed at 2sec off the pace.
Up until the half-hour mark, there had been a leading group of 12 runners, but that was cut to six as the pace was upped, Qatar’s Saif Saaeed Shaheen and Kenyan Moses Mosop two notable casualties.
Gebremariam made his mark in the final 50 metres of the gruelling ascent that led to the run-in to the finish line, keeping enough in reserve to out-pace the chasing pack.
"I didn’t know until I crossed the finish line that I had won. But the pace of the race was easy for me and I knew I had a good finish in me," Gebremariam said, adding that the Ethiopia team had been confident despite Bekele’s absence.
"We won gold when he competed last year and we won gold today. We, as a team, have full confidence and we are afraid of no-one. We fight and we’re happy to have got some medals."
Earlier in the day, Kiplagat also showed the value of keeping something in reserve when she surged past compatriot Linet Masai over the final strength-sapping 150 metres.
Masai, the silver medallist at the worlds in Edinburgh last year, had taken the lead after 16 minutes of the race and held onto it up through the final punishing ascent of the 8km course to the flat run-in to the finish line.
Cruelly, Masai had left herself too much to do and she faded as Kiplagat sprinted past her in a dramatic finale, clocking a winning time of 26min 13sec.
Ethiopian Meselech Melkamu claimed bronze to prevent a clean sweep by Kenya.
"I did not expect to win," said Kiplagat. "Kenya have not won since Hellen Chepngeno in 1994. The course was hilly and tough and I had to battle all the way. I hope the gold remains with us next year even if Tirunesh returns."
Masai said she had been disappointed at burning out in the final stretch but acknowledged that it was good the Kenyan team had got the monkey off their back by winning the event.
"I was certain I had won and then I was second," she said of her meltdown in the run-in.
"But as long as Kenya win then I’m happy. We’ve been hoping to break through in this event."
There was Ethiopian joy in the junior races: defending champion Genzebe Dibaba retained her title while compatriot Ayele Abshero took the junior men’s crown.
Dibaba, 18, timed 20:14 over a 6km course, finishing ahead of Kenyan Mercy Cherono and her compatriot Jackline Chepgnego.
"I am extremely happy that I won, even without my sister Tirunesh here to watch," Dibaba said of her sister’s absence.
"I am happier with my win this year than last year because this race was extremely difficult with the competitors and the course was more than we could handle."
In the men’s race, Abshero went one better than the worlds in Edinburgh last year – when he won silver – this time claiming gold in a time of 23:26.
Kenyan Titus Mbishei was second and Uganda’s Moses Tibet won a sprint finish for third.