NAIROBI, December 20- After the thorough shambles that left Kenya’s reputation as distance running giants in tatters at the London 2012 Olympics, the country’s athletics officials decided to change tact at the onset of 2013.
The March 24 World Cross Country Championships held at the Myslecinek Park in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz presented Athletics Kenya (AK) who had come under severe criticism for the London debacle a chance to redeem the nation’s standing at the high table of distance running.
At the end of action at a snow-filled course, Kenya’s national anthem once again dominated as the red, green and black adorned runners won five of the eight individual and team gold medals on offer.
A further two individual and one team silvers as well as the men’s senior 12km team bronze completed the medal haul as Kenya once again led archrivals Ethiopia to the altar.
Apart from the senior men silver won in stunning fashion by U.S., the two East African titans scooped all the other top two medals across the four races competed- junior women 6km, junior men 8km, senior women 8km and senior men 12km- to underline their choke hold at the now biennial global showpiece.
Having departed for Poland with the yoke of history weighing heavily on them, Team Kenya managed to deliver largely through to the individual brilliance.
Teenage pair Japheth Korir and Faith Chepng’etich as well as the returning champion, Emily Chebet proudly occupied the middle step in the podium in the senior men, junior women and senior women races as team tactics, especially in the men’s events, crumbled under the snow.
“After London, we sat down and decided we needed to emphasise the integration of more junior runners to the team as opposed to relying on established athletes.
“During our national cross country series, we encouraged junior athletes to enter the senior races and in the end, one, Korir, managed to become the youngest ever winner of the senior men 12km race,” AK vice-president in charge of competition and administration, David Okeyo, said.
Only seven among the 24 namely Chebet, Margaret Wangare who was fifth in the women 8km race, Hosea Macharinyang (senior men), Korir (then a junior runner), Janet Kisa (then a junior), Viola Kibiwott and Chepng’etich had prior World Cross experience in the Kenyan team for Bydgoszcz 2013.
Philemon Rono, Jonathan Muia Ndiku, Geoffrey Korir and Timothy Kiptoo made their maiden bows in Kenya’s colours in the Holy Grail of World Cross running, the senior men squad and apart from Korir, 19, who blew away defending champion Imane Merga (Ethiopia) to claim shock gold, the rest failed the test.
With the World Cross now biennial, it will be difficult for Korir to match the achievements of Tergat and Ngugi who won Kenya five senior World Cross individual titles or Bekele’s record six but time is on his side.
It was not a surprise that the women’s equivalent led by Chebet who struck gold at the 2010 edition held at the same course fulfilled their favourite’s role to perfection by winning the individual and team honours.
A virtually unknown junior men squad led by World Championships steeplechase silver winner, Conseslus Kipruto, failed to whether the Ethiopian onslaught.
Hagos Gebrhiwet and Mukthar Idris sandwiched Leonard Barsoton on the podium with Kipruto (5th) and Michael Bett (10th) finishing further down the order as Ethiopia ruled the roost.
Chepng’etich, also 19, who is heralded as the future of women’s distance running became only the third ever woman to hold on to the 6km title replicating fellow countrywoman Viola Kibiwot in 2001 and 2002, and Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba in 2008 and 2009.
Team mates Agnes Tirop (silver), Caroline Chepkoech (4th), Rosefline Chepng’etich (7th) and Sheila Chepng’etich (8th) arrived home in that order to clinch the team title.
The net benefit of the Bydgoszcz 2013 World Cross for Kenya in the long run could be the coming of age of the country’s next crop of distance running superstars.