Ethiopia's Gelete Burka becomes 2006 World Cross Country Championships short race champion (© Getty Images)
Last year’s World Junior Cross Country champion Gelete Burika Bati today succeeded in adding the senior women’s short race crown despite gale force winds which blasted the course which is situated on the Fukuoka’s flat shore on the Genkai Sea.
Burika or ‘Burka’, as she is more commonly known on the international circuit – having informed the international press earlier this season that there is a spelling mistake in her passport and there is no ‘i’ in her name – immediately joined Kokob Mehari of Eritrea at the front of the field, as the gun fired and the race set off into the gale force wind. Within moments though the pack had swallowed them up as the first hill was negotiated, but while the Eritrean was not to feature again (finished 78th), the 20-year-old Ethiopian had posed her intent, and it was to be a temporary demotion into the chorus line of this show, for today a senior star was born.
Luck, if not the conditions were on the athletes’ side today. Within moments of the race passing parallel of the finishing area as they made their way out of the opening straight for the first time and onto the hill on the opening bend of the loop course, the force of the wind ripped an officials’ tent from its anchors by the finishing line, and blew it down the course, hitting a volunteer on the head. Anyone who was to prevail in these conditions and finish the 4km race was a heroine, and there were 91 of them in this race today.
Thankfully the strength of the wind was not the cause of the one major race casualty. The physical fatigue of her long race victory yesterday and the loss of three days training due to illness in the last fortnight was just too much of a physical burden for Burka’s compatriot, defending champion Tirunesh Dibaba, who pulled out of the race at the end of the first lap.
And whether they were aware of Dibaba’s departure or not, within moments of the bell had sounding for the beginning of the second and final lap, Kenya’s Priscah Jepleting, fourth last year, and Burka decided this was their moment to pounce. Suddenly a large pack of nearly a dozen runners who had been together found themselves running in crocodile fashion, with this East African duo in the vanguard. Such was the ferocity of their move, Burka’s compatriot Teyba Erkesso, who had been at the front for sometime, found her legs wanting and quickly was dropped (eventually finishing 12th).
The advantage was with Jepleting at first but with just under 9 minutes on the clock Burka made what would ultimately be her decisive move, and the power of her assault opened up a 10 to 15 metre lead and this held intact until the final hill and bend of the course. Then Jepleting, the Kenyan national trials winner, put in her final effort, but it brought no more than a few metres reduction in Burka’s advantage.
Powering off the hill and into the finishing straight, victory was clearly already assured, and Burka broke the tape in 12:51 for the 4km, with Jepleting keeping up her attack until the end, to finish two seconds adrift in second. Meselech Melkamu of Ethiopia, who like Burka and Dibaba, was once the World Junior champion, finished in third (12:54).
Behind the medals followed a closely fought battle for fourth which was won by Australia’s Benita Johnson, the 2004 long race champion, over Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands, who had taken the long race silver yesterday. For the Australian who was upset not to have medalled at the recent Commonwealth Games in Melbourne over 10,000m, there must be some frustration that despite superb running she has twice missed out on an individual medal this weekend. However, some compensation was to be found on the team front because Australia picked up the team bronze (they had been fourth in the long race yesterday) with 69pts, four ahead of Morocco.
The team title could not have been closer won, and as happened last year Ethiopia won by one point from Kenya. This time the points were 25 to 26.
“The wind was really pushing us,” confirmed Burka. “It was difficult. I didn't know Dibaba dropped out; she was behind me, so I didn't know if she was there or not. Tirunesh is a very dangerous athlete, very strong; if we had run together today, maybe I would have been number one, maybe number two, maybe number one... I don't know."
Jepleting confirmed she had been optimistic that her last attack might have drawn her past Burka: “On the last hill, I thought I might catch the Ethiopian girl but in the end I could not.”
The race was very good; I have won a medal for my country and for myself. I had feared Dibaba at first, but then she dropped out."
Leading her team to bronze, Johnson said: “I ran as hard as I could. I recovered well from yesterday.”
Chris Turner for the IAAF