Friday, March 23, 2007

History on the Horizon

Unlike the Olympics or World Championships, the IAAF Cross Country Championship is an annual event. So, the natural question to ask is what is special about this year’s edition of the championship. The answer is basically two-fold.

First, this year’s event is being held in Africa. Obviously, Africa produces the world’s best runners so it is only fitting that a major championship event is once again hosted by an African nation. And this time, not just any African nation, but Kenya- the absolute dominant country in the event for most of the past twenty years. Although I would argue that Ethiopia produces better championship caliber performers overall, there is no disputing that Kenya is unrivaled in the depth of talent it has on display in all major races around the world. It is not at all unusual for Kenyans to take seven or eight of the top ten positions in many of the major city road races. The fact that this year’s championship is held in Kenya is an acknowledgement of the contribution Kenya has made to the sport of running. Kenya should be congratulated for its athletes achievement since the late 1960’s, and all African’s should take pride that Kenya has
managed to bring a truly world class sporting event once again back to Africa.

Secondly, this year’s championship is special because Kennenisa Bekele has decided to compete in it. As a strange as it may sound, this one decision by one man has entirely changed the tone of the championship. One year ago, after winning his fifth consecutive long and short course double championship,
Kennenisa announced that he would not be running the 2007 race in Mombasa. He stated that there is really nothing more left for him to achieve in cross country having already won an unprecedented ten individual gold medals in the senior men race. He wanted to make room for the up-and-coming Ethiopian runners.

Following Kennenisa’s announcement, there were speculations all throughout the year whether he would stick by his words or have a change of heart and compete once more. Even some of the Kenyan athletes conceded that the race would simply not be the same without Kennenisa present, and whoever the champion turns out to be, he could really not claim to be a world champion without defeating Kennenisa.

As the championships neared, Kennenisa appeared to be sticking with his decision not to compete in Mombassa, but still left himself room to change his mind if he wanted to compete. In January this year, Kennenisa started hinting for an appearance fee to be paid to him to participate in Mombasa when he commented that he may run “if there is something special” offered to him. IAAF insists that no appearance fee has been paid to Kennenisa to participate.

The first big hint that Kennenisa was leaning towards running in Mombasa came when it was revealed that an open spot has been reserved on the team at the announcement of the
Ethiopian squad on March 1st. Few days later, on March 5th, Kennenisa announced that he would be participating in the Mombasa championship to defend his title in the senior men 12km race. In the press conference he gave today, he says that his participation is out of respect for his friends and rivals from Kenya.

Kennenisa cites his recent record setting performance in Birmingham and Stockholm as
additional reason for changing his decision of one year ago. It is obvious that he is convinced that he can win again or else he would not have been willing to take a risk of defeat on the home soil of his greatest rivals. A defeat in Mombasa will be a very bitter pill to swallow but a victory will distinguish Kennenisa high above all other cross country runners in history. Currently, Kennenisa’s five victories in the 12km race have him tied with the Kenyan legends Paul Tergat and John Ngugi, who have also won five titles each. A sixth victory tomorrow will prove that Kennenisa has no equal in cross county running. And to achieve this by beating Kenyans in Kenya will make it that much more special.

I am convinced that Kennenisa made his decision to compete in Mombasa much earlier than announced and simply kept quiet to keep his Kenyan rivals guessing. Now that the Kenyans know that Kennenisa will be in the race, they will leave no stone unturned in an attempt to protect their signature sport and their home turf from being
owned by Kennenisa. It is almost certain that a Kenyan team tactic will be deployed to tire out Kennenisa and throw him off his game plan. But I believe Kennenisa, with his experience and talent, will overcome any challenge and earn another victory.

In addition to the individual title, the team title will be highly contested tomorrow. Between 1986 and 2003, Kenya won the senior men team title for 18 consecutive years setting the longest winning streak in international sport. Ethiopia then took it away in 2004 and 2005 but Kenya regained it last year. It will be a great achievement for Ethiopia to take this back on Kenyan soil. And Ethiopia has strong enough field to achieve this goal. In addition to Kennenisa, his younger brother Tariku, Sileshi Sihine, and Abebe Dinkessa all have strong cross country credentials. The Ethiopian trial champion Tadesse Tola could also be the dark horse in this race.

Team scoring in cross country is simple- add up the finishing place of the top five runners on a team to get a team score. A perfect score is achieved if a team places its runners first to fifth for a score of 15 (1+2+3+4+5). The team with the lowest score wins. I believe Ethiopia can place two or three in the top five and all five scoring runners in the top ten.

On the
women’s side, the biggest drama may be entirely within the Ethiopian team. Tirunesh Dibaba is going for her third consecutive senior women victory which would tie her with the American Lynn Jennings from the 1990’s. However, I do not believe that Tirunesh is a lock for a victory. Meselech Melkamu is in absolute top form which she displayed in her indoor 3000M race in Stuttgart last month and her decisive victory at the Ethiopian Cross Country Trials earlier this month.

Also not to be counted out is
Gelete Burka who was the Junior Race champion two years ago and the Short Race champion last year. She has already won two cross country races this year in Edinburgh, Scotland and Seville, Spain. Add to that Wude Ayalew, who has had great results over the past couple of months, and I believe the Ethiopian women are a lock for a team victory tomorrow. I don’t believe it is far fetched to think these Ethiopian ladies could finish 1-2-3 in tomorrow’s race. If I have to pick an individual winner, I would go with Meselech Melkamu at this time simply because Tirunesh has not done any cross country racing so far in 2007. One other thing to note is how Maryam Jamal of Bahrain (formerly Zenebech Tola of Ethiopia) will fare competing among the Ethiopians. Apparently, Jamal is in good form as she showed in winning the Asian Cross Country championship in a dominating fashion. Also running in tomorrow’s race will be Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse, the former Ethiopian Hewan Abeye. The Kenyans will also have to contend with several formerly Kenyan athletes who now compete for another country including Netherlands’ Lornah Kiplagat.

The course on the grounds of Mombasa Golf Club is said to be flat and fast but the whether will be warm (mid 80’s) and humid (80%). When all is said and done, the weather could prove to be the toughest opponent for Kennenisa and the other runners alike.

We will have to wait few more hours to find out if history is made at the Mombasa race. As I mentioned on my last entry, I am excited to be watching all races live and providing up to the minute update here on ROOCHA.
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You can watch the races for yourself if you are willing to pay a $6.95 subscription fee. For two weeks now, I have been watching a 24hour/7days live feed of Ethiopian Television (ETV) over the internet (must have broad-band connection) through
Jump TV. I had seen the banner ad on Ethiopian Review’s website (not to be considered an endorsement of content) for few months prior but decided to give it a try two weekends ago. I signed up for a one month access for $6.95. The day that I signed up happened to be the opening ceremony of the 1st All Ethiopian Games which I enjoyed watching including the torch lighting by Haile Gebrselassie, Tirunesh Dibaba, Meseret Defar, and Sileshi Sihin.

Obviously, the news segment on ETV is unfiltered government propaganda. However, I have found the other shows (Tea/Coffee, Q & A, Aerobics, Cooking, Sport, and even commercials) to be quite interesting. The connection is fairly stable (7 on a 1-10 scale) with the exception of minor hiccups and occasional and abrupt interruption by Jump TV. Overall, I have found it to be a good value and a step forward in my project “If I can’t go to Ethiopia, I will bring Ethiopia to me.” Last weekend ETV announced that it will carry the Cross Country Championship in Mombasa LIVE for the first time ever. Coverage begins tomorrow at 3:30PM local time which is 8:30AM Eastern Daylight Savings Time. The senior women’s race is at 9:40AM EDT and the senior men’s race is at 10:20AM EDT.