Emily Chebet of Kenya sprints to win the women's senior race in Bydgoszcz 2010 (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Bydgoszcz , Poland

Chebet lets her legs do the talking - Bydgoszcz 2010

In many ways, Emily Chebet’s victory in the senior women’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships harked back to earlier, and simpler, times. Back to the days when the World Cross Country was a race that went to the athlete who ran best on the day and when the identity of that athlete would, as often as not, come as a surprise.

Chebet’s win over teammate Linet Masai and Ethiopian pair Meselech Melkamu and Tirunesh Dibaba could hardly be classified as a complete shock - the 24-year-old from Kericho in the Rift Valley had solid credentials. She had won the Kenyan national title at 10,000m in 2007 and gone on to finish seventh in the 10,000m at the world championships in Osaka.

Solid, but not exactly daunting in the face of Dibaba’s achievements including three wins in the World Cross Country long race - and a double victory in 2005, when the short course race was still on the program - a World championship track distance double in 2005 and an Olympic double in 2008.

Nor was it enough to intimidate Masai, the reigning World champion at 10,000m on the track and runner-up in this race last year. Even Melkamu had four bronze medals at the World Cross Country to her name.

Yet it was no surprise to the Kenyan team. After finishing fourth in the Kenyan trials, Chebet had thrived in the Kenyan training camp and a poll among the team coaches on the eve of Bydgoszcz had ranked her the number one pick for the race. The Kenyan camp system has taken a bit of criticism in recent years, mainly because it has not continued to churn out champions in the face of the relentless competition from Ethiopia, but in Chebet’s case it came up trumps.

Teammates were equally confident. As Mercy Cherono, winner of the junior race, watched the start of the senior race while waiting for her medal press conference she was asked who would win the race.

“Emily”, she replied confidently and without hesitation. She was right, and she added a further prediction that Dibaba would this time leave without an individual medal. She was right on that count, too.

Chebet did not have much to say after her victory. Her own press conference elicited little information other than the fact she had been confident in her ability to take a medal. Indeed, for most of the time, questions directed to the winner were answered by runner-up Masai after a quiet conversation between the two.

Little matter: also in the manner of some previous winners of the championships, Chebet’s legs had spoken eloquently enough on her behalf. As Masai had whittled the leading pack down to five, then four, then - with the surprising dropping of Dibaba - to three, Chebet looked comfortable in tracking every move.

The decisive moment came as the runners cleared the two log jumps in the second half of the final 2km loop. Masai surged clear of Melkamu between the two obstacles, opening a 10-metre gap. Chebet was behind the Ethiopian runner at this stage. Sensing the danger, she immediately went around Melkamu and quickly closed the gap.

Masai still led as the Kenyan teammates turned off the loop and into the short finishing straight. But Chebet was poised menacingly and, after a short, sharp sprint, she prevailed. For the second year in a row, Masai was relegated to the runner-up position by a teammate. She lamented that she would have to work on her finishing speed, ironically the very asset which had brought her a track gold in Berlin.

But the Kenyan pair did consolidate the swing in power which began when Florence Kiplagat and Masai finished one-two in Amman at last year’s championships and continued with the victories to Masai and Vivian Cheruiyot at 10,000m and 5000m in Berlin.

Florence Kiplagat said then that her aim was to bring Kenyan women’s distance running up to the same level of performance as the men. Kiplagat was hindered by a hamstring injury in Berlin and the same complaint kept her from defending her title in Bydgoszcz.

Kenya won the men’s individual title here for the first time since 1999 through Joseph Ebuya, too, but Emily Chebet and Masai ensured the women kept up the pace.

Kenya has now won consecutive senior women’s team titles for the first time since 1995 and 1996 and consecutive women’s long race individual championships for the first time ever (though Edith Masai won a hat-trick of short-course titles from 2002 to 2004).

With achievements like that in Bydgoszcz, Emily Chebet made a big statement without having to utter a single word.

Len Johnson for the IAAF