Million Wolde winning the junior men's title at the 1998 IAAF World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)
Belfast has happy memories for Million Wolde. The young Ethiopian first made his mark on the world of international distance running by winning the IAAF World Cross Challenge race there two years ago.
Still only 17, he ran away from noted runners such as Slovakia’s Robert Stefko and South Africa’s Hendrik Ramaala and has kept on leaving top class opponents trailing in his wake ever since.
He was hardly an unknown quantity, having finished eighth in the World Cross Country Championships junior men’s race the previous year, but his victory propelled him into the spotlight.
It prompted the inevitable questions about whether he might eventually be the man to take over the mantle of his phenomenal compatriot Haile Gebrselassie, when the 5000 and 10,000 world record holder decides to become a marathon man sometime in the next decade.
The questions are still there but some of the answers may come this weekend.
Last week Wolde celebrated his 20th birthday and on Saturday he returns to the Northern Ireland capital striving to become the youngest man to win a senior men’s world cross country title since the IAAF took over the organisation of the event in 1973.
"I am have decided that I will run in the short four kilometre race. Can I win it? I don’t know because the Kenyans will be very strong opponents but I will try my best," the precocious Wolde said recently.
He has extra motivation to succeed, not just because of the lure of the $40,000 that goes with the gold medal.
Ethiopia has lifted many women’s and junior titles at the World Cross Country Championships in the last decade but the top honours in the senior men’s ranks have evaded them since 1985, when the Ethiopian team took the gold medal.
No Ethiopian man has stood alone on top of the medal podium since Bekele Debele did it in 1983, ironically at another British venue, Gateshead.
Even the great Gebrselassie, winner of everything else there is on offer in distance running, has had to be content with missing out on the title. His best results have been a second place as a junior in 1992 followed by a bronze medal as a senior two years later.
Wolde however knows what it is like to stand on top of the medal podium. Last year he won the world junior cross country title on African soil in the Moroccan city of Marrakech. He added to his gold medal collection later in the summer with the world junior 5,000 title in the Annecy, France.
This winter he has prepared for the World Cross Country Championships with wins in the Durham World Cross Challenge race in January followed by an impressive indoor 3,000 victory last month in Stuttgart in 7:42.61.
In addition he notched up a 3,000 bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in Maebashi, Japan, beaten only by two men who will not be competing in Belfast - Gebrselassie and Kenya’s Paul Bitok.
Wolde knows he will not have matters his own way next weekend. Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli has said that he will compete in his first World Cross Country Championships since his junior days more than a decade ago.
Kenya, who took the first five places in last year’s men’s short race have named a formidable team that includes Paul Kosgei, Benjamin Limo and John Kosgei - third, fourth and fifth last year - although neither John Kibowen not Daniel Komen, first and second in Marrakech, are returning to the fray.
There is also a strong European challenge from Spain, which has Isaac Viciosa and Manuel Pancorbo, the European 5,000 gold and silver medallists, in its squad.
"I have great confidence that we can do well but if I had to pick out one great danger then it would be Million Wolde," Viciosa commented.
Viciosa will not be fooled by Wolde’s modest fourth position in the Ethiopian trials last month. "I had a hard indoor season and I just did enough to qualify. The World Cross Country Championships is the focus of my season," Wolde said.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF