Stage set for Punta Umbria rumble

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PUNTA UMBRIA, Spain, March 19- Kenya is out to maintain the status quo, Ethiopia is seeking revenge, Uganda have come to spoil the party for the favourites and hosts Spain are hoping just to be near the East Africans.

That is the rich cocktail distance running enthusiasts are in for when the 39th World Cross gets underway on Sunday morning here at the resort town of Punta Umbria in the Province of Huelva in the Andalucia region of Spain.

At Saturday’s international press conference featuring five top athletes from four nations expected to make an impact in the first biennial edition of the elite distance running event, the battle lines were clearly drawn.

“We are looking forward to taking all the gold medals like last year and we have prepared well. We are happy to have world champions in our team but they are not the only ones who can win gold, everyone in our team can win gold,” Lineth Chepkurui, Kenya’s assistant overall team captain ominously stated.

Chepkurui who was fifth last year and fourth in 2009 in the senior 8km women’s race expressed joy in competing at her fourth straight World Cross saying, “When I fell during the Trials, I was so worried of missing out of my favourite event but because of my previous performance and good shape, selectors gave me the wildcard and I was so delighted to be selected.”

Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu, who with 16 World Cross medals is the most decorated runner in Punta Umbria, was categorical about her country’s mission to Spain.

“Last year, Ethiopians were disappointed since they are used to receiving gold medals. We did not have a team last year but this time, we have a good team and we have much better preparations. For me, if I do not get gold, I will get silver, nothing less,” Melkamu, who will front her nation’s squad in the absence of their feared duo, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba in Punta Umbria charged.

Spain’s Moroccan born Ayad Lamdassem, the silver winner at European Cross Country Championships stated the host’s task was to contest for team bronze in the senior men 12km run.

“Kenyans and Ethiopians are favourites but we finished sixth in Amman (2009) and fifth last year in the team competition and we want to fight for bronze this year.

“I’m so happy for the European silver I won since I have been dreaming for it for the last three years and I want to improve on my 30th finish at the 2009 World Cross. It’s sad that we will not compete against all European countries here and I ask my colleagues in Europe to compete at World Cross,” Lamdassem said.

His teammate and Spain’s biggest prospect in the women’s 8km senior race, Alessandra Aguilar gave modest expectations stating, “I’m more experienced and strong and taking part at the World Cross in front of the home crowd is motivation for us to go for good positions in the individual and team competitions.”

“Getting to the podium is almost impossible with Kenyans and Ethiopians as well as USA who have brought a strong team here,” she added.

Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro, who is the face of the country’s emergence as a distance running power to rival the Kenyan and Ethiopian duopoly at World Cross remained confident of completing the whole set of medals on Sunday in the men’s 12km race.

“I’m grateful to be here. I have won silver (2009) and bronze last year and I’m looking forward to get gold. I will fight for my best because for the last two weeks, I have been having problems with my knee and I had to cancel my race in Seville.

“But now, I’m okay and I know starting my campaign well here means I will do better at the World Championships in Daegu,” the athlete who beat Kenyans twice to the gold medals in 5000m and 10000m at last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi expressed.   

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