Not since the five-year reign of Kenenisa Bekele from 2002 to 2006 has a senior man managed to win back-to-back world cross-country titles, but Geoffrey Kamworor will be aiming to do exactly that at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 on Sunday 26 March.
Sunday’s race will mark exactly one year since his triumph at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016, which also happens to be his most recent victory. In a somewhat disrupted past 12 months, Kamworor has raced just three times since then, finishing second over 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene, placing 11th in the 10,000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and finishing third at last month’s Kenyan Cross Country Championships.
But Kamworor isn’t unduly concerned ahead of his title defence on Sunday. Cross country is one of his strengths, which he first displayed when winning the 2011 world U20 cross-country title. Combined with his ability to raise his game when it matters, Kamworor will be a formidable opponent in Kampala.
Leonard Barsoton won the senior men’s race at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships, but that often counts for little when it comes to the World Cross. The last time the winner of the Kenyan Cross Country Championships went on to become the top Kenyan finisher at the World Cross Country Championships was back in 2007.
Nevertheless, the 2013 world U20 cross-country silver medallist should still be in the hunt for medals and will be keen to improve on his fifth-place finish from two years ago in Guiyang. Kampala’s Kalolo Independence Grounds also holds good memories for Barsoton as it is where he won the 2014 African cross-country title.
Better known as a pace maker, Vincent Rono finished fourth at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships, just a few seconds behind Kamworor. He has never previously represented Kenya at an international championship, but now finally has a chance to shine as an athlete in his own right.
Leonard Komon took the senior men’s silver medal back in 2008 and went on to break world records for 10km and 15km little more than two years later. After a few fallow years, Komon is regaining form and will be a valuable member of the Kenyan team on Sunday alongside Leonard Langat,
Nicholas Kosimbei and Mark Bett.
Much like the curse of the Kenyan cross-country champion, the winner of the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships rarely goes on to be the country’s top finisher at the World Cross. But national champion Getaneh Molla could be the man to break that trend.
Molla has never quite received the respect he deserves. National titles are hard to come by in Ethiopia, but Molla has four of them: two at 5000m and two at cross country. He also won the African Games 5000m title in 2015. But because he has never represented his country at a global championships, he is still a relatively unknown name internationally.
Team-mate Muktar Edris, meanwhile, is one of the more familiar faces on the international circuit. Two years after taking the U20 men’s bronze medal at the 2013 World Cross Country Championships, he went on to win the same colour medal in the senior men’s race just two years later in Guiyang. His results this year have been mixed, though. He won at the prestigious Campaccio meeting in January but finished a distant 40th at the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships, later complaining of “injury and pain” in the middle of the race.
Like Molla, Abadi Hadis could be on the verge of a breakthrough. He won the Ethiopian 10,000m title on his debut at the distance last year and went on to finish 15th in the event at the Olympic Games, aged just 19 at the time. He qualified for Kampala after finishing second to Molla in the trial race.
Mogos Tuemay and 2011 world 10,000m champion Ibrahim Jeilan are two of the more experienced members of the Ethiopian squad and will be aiming to help their country retain the senior men’s team title.
Strong host nation hopes
The last time the World Cross was held in Africa also happens to be the last time an athlete outside of Ethiopia or Kenya won the senior men’s race. If history were to repeat itself in that regard, then home favourite Joshua Cheptegei stands as good a chance as anyone at breaking up the traditional dominance.
The Ugandan won the world U20 10,000m title in 2014 but finished a somewhat disappointing 11th in the U20 men’s race at the 2015 World Cross. He has improved significantly since then, though, finishing sixth in the 10,000m at last year’s Olympics and winning the Ugandan cross-country title by a 22-second margin. He also convincingly beat a strong field at the Juan Muguerza meeting in January.
Should Cheptegei triumph on Sunday, he would become just the fourth senior men’s winner to strike gold on home soil, joining the likes of 2001 winner Mohammed Mourhit of Belgium, 1985 winner Carlos Lopes of Portugal and 1979 winner John Treacy or Ireland.
Although he only finished fourth at the Ugandan Cross Country Championships in January, Timothy Toroitich won two high-quality international races in Spain earlier in the winter and has been named captain of the host nation’s squad.
African cross-country silver medallist Phillip Kipyeko was runner-up to Cheptegei at the National Cross Country Championships and should bolster Uganda’s chances of challenging for a team medal.
Bahrain took the team bronze medal two years ago in Guiyang and given the strength of their team this year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were to repeat that performance.
Their team is led by Aweke Ayalew, who has finished no lower than second in all of his international races this past winter. Asian 5000m record-holder Albert Rop – who finished a close second to Mo Farah at the IAAF World Indoor Tour meeting in Birmingham last month – is also on the Bahraini team, alongside Abraham Cheroben and El Hassan Elabbassi.
USA’s Leonard Korir heads to Kampala with an unbeaten record so far in 2017. He started the year with a triumph at the Great Edinburgh X-Country and followed it with victories at the Houston Half Marathon and the US Cross Country Championships. It may be a push for the US team to replicate their team silver medal from 2013, but they should at least be in contention for a podium spot.
Eritrea, as ever, will also be one of the strongest teams out on the course. Turkey, meanwhile, won’t contend for team honours, but sole representative Polat Kemboi Arikan should figure among the lead pack.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF