Saturday, April 01, 2006

A pair of grudge matches will take place this weekend between Kenenisa Bekele and his many pursuers in the short and long races at the World Cross Country Championships. This phalanx of competitors, hoping to deny Bekele a fifth consecutive double, will be lead by Qatari transplant Saif Saeed Shaheen in the short race, which would be the weaker of Bekele's two races. I think it's safe to say that Bekele is invincible at the showcase of cross country running, the senior men's 12 km.

However, Bekele outran Shaheen at last year's championships in France, a major cross country race in January at Edinburgh, as well as at the World Indoor Championships earlier this month. I am hard-pressed to see Shaheen somehow come out on top this time given the way Bekele has shown a superhuman finishing kick, making up a large gap in the final kilometre at Edinburgh.

The only other realistic contender in the short race are Augustine Choge, a putative 19-year old (not that it really matters) with a long string of accolades to his name. Perhaps more important than those accolades is the hype attached to his name: Kenya has to be hoping that he can pull out a big performance on Saturday.

The long race should be mostly academic. Bekele has never lost a cross country race as a senior. It should, however, be a thing of beauty to watch nonetheless as the world's hardiest distance runners, whether miler or marathoners, run twelve mouth-frothingly furious kilometres with a primal urgency. Look for Boniface Kiprop (now there's a name) of Uganda, Zernesay Tadesse of Eritrea, as well as the Kenyan warhorses in Kibowen and Kamathi, to be in the thick of it along with Bekele's own teammates and two dozen of East Africa's finest, plus Craig Mottram.

Not to ignore the women, though I have to admit that I don't really follow women's running (except for the youth championships, since those girls are as fast as I am), I'm going to say that the Ethiopians will do even better in the women's races than the men's. I don't know any names other than Tirunesh Dibaba, who should give Ethiopia its thoroughly Canadian double double, but it seemed that every race in Europe this winter was won by some Ethiopian or another. Speaking of women, good luck to bib number 49, some girl named Kate van Buskirk.

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