Lynn Jennings (USA) - 1992 World XC (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Multiple golds – Mombasa 2007

The Kenyan city of Mombasa plays host to the eagerly anticipated 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships (24 March 2007) but looking at the event’s past might draw some important conclusions for Saturday’s race.

In the 35-year history of the event only 15 men have ever lifted the senior men’s long course crown – and of these only six have been solo winners of the event with nine athletes boasting at least one successful defence.

It is a similar trend with the women. Of their 18 champions – 11 have won the title at least twice or more and there have been seven athletes who have successful defended their titles.

Logically you would expect solo champions to be perhaps more commonplace.

The IAAF World Cross Country Championships provide brutally tough competitions which attracts the finest endurance runners from all events – 5000m, 10,000m, Marathon and Steeplechase. The standard of the event is also enhanced by the fact that in the men’s senior race each country can run nine athletes, and in the senior women and the two junior races six runners per country can take-part, as opposed to just three per event at major track and field championships. The quality is therefore exceedingly high.

Yet still the IAAF World Cross Country Championships has a habit of providing repeat champions.

John Treacy was the first man to complete the double with victory in 1978 and 1979 and he was succeeded by American Craig Virgin, who won the event in 1980 and 1981.

Remarkably, the last solo winner of the World Cross Country Championships was some 24 years ago when Ethiopia’s Bekele Debele of Ethiopia battled through the Gateshead mud to triumph in 1983!     

Since then multiple men’s winners abound -

Portuguese distance star Carlos Lopes won his second and third world cross gold medals in 1984 and 1985 to add to his maiden victory at Chepstow in 1976. Kenyan great John Ngugi began his dynasty with the first of his four successive titles coming in 1986 – he went on to win a fifth in 1992. Moroccan Khalid Skah was a two-time winner in 1990 and 1991, as was Kenyan William Sigei (93, 94) and Belgian Mohammed Mourhit (2000, 01). Kenyan Paul Tergat, the World marathon record-holder, won five successive titles from 1995 and, of course, Ethiopia master Kenenisa Bekele has won five straight long course titles an accomplishment made even more remarkable by the fact on each occasion he has also struck gold in the now defunct short course race.

There is also a preponderance of multiple champions in the women’s long course race.

Italian Paola Pigni-Cacchi secured victory in the first IAAF World Cross Country in 1973 and 1974 and Spain’s Carmen Valero struck gold in 1976-77. Grete Waitz of Norway won the race a record-breaking five times from 1978-81 and also in 1983 and Zola Budd of Great Britain, Romania’s Maricica Pucia and Annette Sergent of France were both two-time winners in the Eighties.

At the beginning of the Nineties American Lynn Jennings reigned three times from 1990-92 and the trend has been maintained with Derartu Tulu (1995, 1997, 2000), and double winners Gete Wami (1996, 1999), Paula Radcliffe (2001-2) and Tirunesh Dibaba 2005-6. Indeed, since 1994 there have been three only solo long course champions, and one of those, Sonia O’Sullivan of Ireland, completed the long course/short course double in Marrakesh in 1998.

The short course event has also provided multiple winners with Edith Masai winning a hat-trick of women’s titles from 2002-04 and Kenyan John Kibowen winning the men’s race in 1998 and 2000.

There has even been back-to-back champions in the junior race. Kenyan’s Wilfred Kirochi (1987-88) and Philip Mosima (1993-94) successfully defended the men’s junior title and in the women’s race Viola Kibiwot was victorious in 2001-02. 

But why should multiple winners be so commonplace in the history of the championships?

Peter Matthews, the esteemed statistician and IAAF commentator, believes this trend reflects the fact the IAAF World Cross Country Championships is an annual event.

“Like the Formula One world championship with Michael Schumacher or the Wimbledon tennis with (Bjorn) Borg, (Roger) Federer or (Rod) Laver you find a lot of multiple champions in annual events,” Matthews explained.

“Any event where you get all the best people in the world you often get one or two stand out performers. This is very different from say a big city marathon where the race does not necessarily attract the best people in the world every year.”

Tim Hutchings, who won a silver medal for Great Britain in the 1984 and 1989 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, also believes the annual nature of the event helped forge multiple winners.

“It is the only global championship in the sport which is held on an annual basis,” said Hutchings, “so this makes it easier to win more than one title. On the track you can dominate for three years but not win an Olympic title because the event is every four years. While you could dominate for three years on the track and only win one world championship.”

Hutchings also believed cross country races were less tactical than on the track and this eliminated a shock element from the racing.

“It is easier to be more consistent in cross country running,” said Hutchings. “Cross country races tend to be run flat out and are therefore more objective.”  

Steve Landells for the IAAF