NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 23 – The World Cross Country Championship takes place in Kampala Sunday in Uganda’s biggest ever sports showpiece, with the traditional rivalry between Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes set to dominate the event.
More than 550 athletes from 59 countries and one refugee team from South Sudan will take part, making the event the biggest cross country meeting since 2006 where 574 competitors took part in the Japanese city of Fukuoka.
Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated the event since 1981 and all eyes will be on the two running-mad nations at Kampala’s Kololo grounds, scene of Uganda’s Independence celebrations in October 1962.
Kenya won the men’s senior title a record 18 years in row from 1986 to 2003, with most of the wins under former national team coach Mike Kosgei.
Kosgei is back with Kenya as the deputy team manager for Kampala championships, and the veteran coach has warned that although Kenya will field a formidable team, the hosts and a couple of countries with former Kenyan-born athletes should not be underrated.
“Many people are thinking the race will be between Ethiopia and Kenya, but they are forgetting about the Ugandans and former Kenyans who are competing for other countries like Bahrain, Qatar and the United States”, Kosgei told AFP.
“Uganda have a very strong team led by the 2014 World and African 10,000m champion Joshua Cheptegei and Timothy Toroitich, winner of two big international cross-country races in Spain this winter,” Kosgei told AFP.
“Being the hosts should also gives the Ugandans the home advantage to show their pedigree before their home crowd.”
Bahrain claimed its first ever medal at the last World cross country championship in Guiyang with a bronze in the team event, thanks to a legion of former Ethiopian and Kenyan runners.
Nearly a quarter of the 28-member strong team representing the United States are former Kenyans who have taken up American citizenship.
The United States team includes the national cross country champion Leonard Korir, who won the Great Edinburgh cross country race in January and the current Olympic 5000m silver medallist, Paul Chelimo.
The 26-year-old Chelimo is one of the four athletes named for the inaugural Mixed Relay, a race comprising male and female runners introduced for the first time to spice up the championships.
Both Kenya and Ethiopian have named an array of Olympic and world champions in their teams for the relays, which will be held before the main competition.
The world cross country championship is considered one of the most difficult races to win, even more difficult than the Olympic Games, due to the tough course terrains.
Uganda becomes only the fourth African country to host the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) event in its 44th year history.
Morocco hosted twice in 1975 and 1998, South Africa in 1996 and Kenya in 2007. The competition was changed from an annual to a biennial event in 2011.
Kampala also marks the first time that senior women will race the distance of 10 kilometres.