BYDGOSZCZ, March 27 – The cream of African running talent will be on display at the World Cross-Country Championships on Sunday, with a battle royale between Ethiopia and Kenya likely in both men and women's events.A welcome returnee to the women’s 8km race will be Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba, the reigning double Olympic middle-distance champion bidding for a fourth world cross-country title.
But Dibaba’s injured male team-mate Kenenisa Bekele, a multi-medal winner who has also shone on the track, will not be competing through injury.
Dibaba missed last year’s edition in Jordan through injury but won the crown in Edinburgh in 2008 to add to victories in 2005 and 2006, and a silver in 2007.
Last year in Amman, Kenya dominated the women’s race in Dibaba’s absence, Florence Kiplagat claiming gold around the wind-swept course at Bisharat Golf Club.
Kiplagat is not in the Kenyan team this time around, and it will be 20-year-old reigning silver medallist Linet Masai, third in 2008 behind Dibaba and Mestawet Tufa, leading the east African country’s charge.
Masai, who also inherited Dibaba’s world track title at 10,000m in Berlin last year, arrives in Poland in good form, with wins in Soria last November, the Cross Italica in Seville in January and the Kenyan nationals last month.
While Dibaba and Masai are the stand-out favourites, there are a host of their compatriots who will be battling for a podium finish.
Kenya boast a strong squad including the likes of Lineth Chepkurui, Margaret Wangare and Emily Muge, while Ethiopia will field Werknesh Kidane, the 2003 long-course champion, Meselech Melkamu and Mamitu Daska.
Kenya’s men’s team are targeting a first individual gold since Paul Tergat in Belfast in 1999.
In the absence of Bekele and Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, two titans of cross country running who have dominated this race throughout the last decade, Kenyan hopes lie with 19-year-old Paul Tanui.
Tanui won the Kenyan Championships by a huge 30.2sec, and will be seeking to translate that form into a race that promises to be tough, with rain and mud predicted.
Tanui’s task will be aided by fellow teenager Lucas Rotich, Leonard Komen, who finished fourth in Amman, and Joseph Ebuya, who was fourth in 2008 and won at Edinburgh in January where Bekele was fourth.
Also in the team are Hosea Macharinyang and Richard Matelong who has Olympic and world steeplechase medals from each of the past three years.
The Ethiopian charge will be led by defending champion Gebre-egziabher Gebremariam and Hunegnaw Mesfin.
Last year’s junior winner Ayele Abshero is on this year’s senior team, but the team could be lacking some depth with Bekele and a handful of other known names not running.
Other rivals for the podium will likely include Tadese’s training partner, Samuel Tsegay, reigning silver medallist Moses Kipsirio of Uganda, and Moroccan Chakir Boujattaoui.
Not one runner born outside Africa failed to bother the top 10 of the men and women’s races at both senior and junior level in Amman last year.
The last men’s team title to have gone Europe’s way was England’s victory in 1980 in Paris. Portugal’s women took a title in 1994, but since then Ethiopia and Kenya have swept aside all in front of them.
The last individual title to have gone to a non-African woman was to Australian Benita Johnson in 2004, with the last to have gone to a man coming in the shape of Carlos Lopes on home soil in Lisbon way back in 1985.