Athletics Weekly reports from the World Cross course the day before the championships
It’s cold. Icy cold. Minus seven degrees but sunny and not too strong a wind and the athletes have been warming up around the course. Many of the Africans are in about 10 layers and not looking happy.
The course looks good, although the finish resembled a building site today. It looked as if the snow had been cleared but what was left was a bumpy track and should make a sprint finish interesting. Snow is everywhere and won’t do any harm to the IAAF’s case to the IOC that cross-country should be part of the Winter Olympics.
Thirty years ago we would have been saying the cold and snow won’t suit the Africans but such is their superiority and lack of leading European or American rivals, it won’t make a difference.
Unlike three years ago when the event was last held in Bydgoszcz, the course has a major hill on each of the near 2km laps. Beside a ski slope, there is a very steep snowy hill to ascend, and then a slightly gentler descent on wood chippings. The rest of the course is reasonably fast but there are obstacles.
A sharp turn less than 100m from the start to get on the main lap looks like it could be a problem for slow starters. However, the days when the men’s field approached 300 have long gone and it will number nearer 120 so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the slower starters to get through.
Support from European countries is poor and expect the Russian federation, who are hosting the IAAF’s outdoor world championships this summer, to be severely admonished for not sending a single runner, especially when they have so many top-class women runners (albeit a number of them banned for failed drug tests!).
In freezing temperatures, a big crowd isn’t expected and media numbers are very small. In the olden days, with the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe the UK media would be out in force, but while the British team are strong in numbers, they don’t include a single Olympian and interest was minimal.
The lack of big names is a worry – no Farah, Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele, Galen Rupp, Vivian Cheruiyot and the IAAF’s decision to make it a biennial event seemingly has weakened and not strengthened the event.
The 40th edition of the event sees no representation from countries from Scandinavia, the Balkans and those which surround Poland. The 1973 men’s event saw the medals taken by Belgium, Russia and New Zealand and none of these countries has a single athlete in the men’s event.
At the press conference, IAAF president Lamine Diack said: “The 40th edition of the world cross-country which are the oldest in the IAAF series was first held in 1973, with 21 countries competing and 185 athletes and now we have 45 countries and 443 athletes.”
He added: “Cross-country requires guts and determination – the pinnacle of long distance running competition – and past winners look like a who’s who of athletics greats – Waitz, Tulu, Radcliffe, Masai, Dibaba, Cheruiyot, Ngugi, Tergat and Bekele.”
He was clearly not happy in the lack of support from some countries and said the IAAF will look into it.
He continued: “Sebastian Coe told me his coach said you have to do long cross-country now coaches are saying don’t run cross country – hope it’s not because East Africa are winning and hope we can bring more countries to compete and we will need to speak to athletes and coaches.
“We want universal appeal around the globe. We want to put cross-country in the Olympics so at least the snow should make it easier for our case for the IOC.”
Sebastian Chmara, advisor to the minister of the sport and a former world indoor heptathlon champion, said: “The weather is surprisingly cold but we are well prepared but we have perfect conditions for a world championships.”
Katarzyna Kowalska, the Polish champion, who won her title on the same course two weeks earlier, said: “The course is different from three years ago and more diversified and more curves and the rest is not exceptionally difficult and it’s interesting.”
Deena Kastor, a two-time world cross medallist from the US, said: “I think my decision was looking at my (training) logs and it was always in years I did cross-country training and racing that I had my better performances on track and road.”
She added: “I don’t feel any pressure to win a medal for our team. It’s an honour to compete. I hope it makes it looks like we are having so much fun that it will increase the chance of getting cross-country in the Olympics. The best in the world should look at this as a challenge and not fear the best.”
Paul Tergat, the five-time world champion, and there as an IAAF ambassador, said: “Unlike three years ago, it’s a very tough hill on each lap. Last time it was like this in 1992 and in Boston. It will be very challenging for everyone but the Kenyans have have been training hard and should not fear anything.”
A world record-holder on track and road, he was asked what surface gave him the most pleasure and he said: “Cross-country is most challenging as it’s where you meet all the top athletes from 1500m to marathon and steeplechase.”
With so many great athletes missing and focusing more on road and track, it is debatable whether that is still the case.
Of the races themselves, defending champion Imane Merga, who missed out on making Ethiopia’s Olympic team, is probably the favourite for the senior men’s race but any one of the Kenyan team is capable of beating him with Philemon Rono, the virtually unknown trials winner, probably their best bet. The most consistent Kenyan Hosea Macharinyang has six top 10 finishes but never made the podium but this time should be his year.
The women’s race will miss Kenya’s 2011 gold and silver medallists Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai and in their absence, Ethiopia’s Hiwot Ayalew and the 2010 champion Emily Chebet start as marginal favourites though Ireland’s European champion Fionnuala Britton could revel in the course and conditions.
Emelia Gorecka, who has Polish ancestors, is the leading British hope in the junior women’s race and the world junior 3000m medallist is another who will enjoy the temperatures and course and is certainly hopeful of a place in the top six.