European athletes will be hoping for a change of fortune at the 41st edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in the Chinese city of Guiyang on 28 March, and in Turkey’s Polat Arikan, they might finally have just the man to do it.
Since winning the senior men’s race at the first seven editions of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships from 1973 to 1979, European athletes have struggled to keep pace with their international rivals at the event.
In the 33 championships since, only two Europeans have mounted the top of the podium in the men’s race, which has been dominated by African runners.
The 1984 Olympic marathon winner Carlos Lopez of Portugal won in 1984, and 1985 to add to his earlier victory in 1976, and Belgium’s Mohammed Mourhit triumphed in 2000 and 2001.
Turkey’s own record at the event makes even less palatable reading.
The nation has never won a medal of any type at the World Cross Country Championship, across the junior and senior age groups, male and female races, and in the team events.
But if December’s European Cross Country Championships were anything to go by, then the transcontinental nation might be set to make its mark on cross country's global stage.
In a thrilling finish in the Bulgarian mountains in Samokov on 14 December, there was an unprecedented Turkey one-two as Arikan just edged out his 20-year-old compatriot Ali Kaya.
The result has given Arikan, who celebrated his 24th birthday while in Bulgaria just two days before the race, the confidence that he can also be a contender in China.
“If I concentrate on my training and maintain my shape and stay free from injury, then why not?” he asked, perhaps hoping it will turn out to be a rhetorical question.
The senior men’s event at the World Cross is widely regarded as one of the toughest, and most competitive, races in athletics to win.
Some authoritative figures, like five-time World Cross winner Paul Tergat, have even suggested it is even tougher to triumph than at the Olympic Games or IAAF World Championships themselves, with distance running specialists from 1500m to the marathon pitted together on the same start line.
Just a quick glance at some of the previous winners reveals the quality of the race.
As well as Lopez, the list of former champions includes Kenya’s John Ngugi, a five-times winner and the 1988 Olympic 5000m champion, Morocco’s Khalid Skah, twice a World Cross winner and the 1992 Olympic 10,000m champion, and Ethiopia’s legendary Kenenisa Bekele, a winner of a record 11 individual gold medals at the World Cross and a three-time Olympic champion on the track.
But Arikan is not one to shirk a challenge.
Since becoming a Turkish citizen in 2012, the Kenyan-born runner has proven his championship credentials.
He won the 10,000m gold medal, and a 5000m bronze, at the 2012 European Championships in Helsinki. He was also a creditable ninth on his Olympic Games debut in the men’s 10,000m in London.
He also won the silver medal at the 2013 European Cross Country Championships before upgrading to gold in Bulgaria, where no one could match the Turks’ finishing speed over the final kilometre.
“It was my day,” said Arikan. “It was hilly but I had the strength, which was very positive for me. It was tough, everybody was in good shape. Even Kaya was strong, but I was determined at the end.
“I prepared for this event for two months with the colleagues in my (training) camp. It was hard training and was very similar (to the race).”
Komon is his conscience
Arikan still retains close links with the country of his birth and he trains regularly in and around Iten, the Kenyan town that is the cradle of many a great running career.
His training group includes Leonard Komon, the world record-holder on the road for both 10km and 15km, also a silver medallist at the 2008 World Cross Country Championships.
“He keeps me moving and determined to me get through my training,” commented Arikan, paying tribute to his mentor, who is three years older.
Looking towards Guiyang, Arikan is eager to mix it with the world’s premier runners if his preparation continues in the same high quality vein as they did for Samokov.
“I hope to be there. It depends on what I do for the next two months. It will be tough with Ethiopians and Kenyans, my fellow friends. There is also Uganda. We have a lot of work to do and we will see if I come top.”
However, his best years are surely still ahead and he has plenty to strive for, including the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
He is also eyeing a likely step up in distance to the marathon next autumn, following Beijing where he probably will strive for a 10,000m medal, after setting an encouraging half marathon personal best of 1:01:22 at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen last March, his first outing over the distance since he was a teenager.
“My future is the marathon,” he added. “I want to start with a 2:08 time. If it is possible for me."
The road to the top is never easy but Arikan, at least on the surface, appears unafraid of any challenge the sport throws him.
The marathoner-to-be is perfectly equipped to do Turkey – and Europe – proud in Guiyang.
Chris Broadbent for the IAAF