Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey became the fourth woman to win back-to-back U20 titles at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
The 19-year-old won gold in Kampala in much the same way she clinched her first title on her debut two years ago in Guiyang, China, only this time she couldn’t lead an Ethiopian podium sweep.
As temperatures rose in the Ugandan capital on Sunday afternoon, 108 athletes set off in the six-kilometre contest. The group featured a mix of international competition debutants and those who were winding up their age-group careers.
Lornah Kiplagat, the 2007 world cross-country champion, had described the Kololo Independence Grounds course as one which would give each athlete a chance, but it was still the Kenyans and Ethiopians who set the early pace. The rainy conditions that had been forecast stayed away, much to the relief of the athletes and fans who turned up to watch the country host its first international athletics event.
At the two-kilometre mark the race was stretched out to a leading pack of 10 athletes, six Kenyans and four Ethiopians. Defending champion Gidey was tucked in within the group, which also had world U18 and U20 steeplechase champion Celliphine Chespol of Kenya.
With no previous international competition experience, Kenya’s Hellen Lobun hung on to the lead on the winding course with Chespol and Gidey as the rest dropped off the pace. Like she did in 2015, Gidey matched the two Kenyans stride for stride as she waited to make a move.
The Ethiopian cross-country champion injected a burst of pace almost 500 metres into the final two-kilometre loop and raced on to win her second major international U20 title.
“The course was somehow challenging because of the grown grass and many barriers but I am delighted with the victory,” Gidey said.
Hawi Feysa, who was third at the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships, worked her way back up the field to take silver while Chespol came home in bronze medal position and Lobun wound up a distant fifth.
In a top 10 dominated by Ethiopians and Kenyans, Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai, a 2016 Olympian in the steeplechase, stood out after finishing seventh. The first non-African finisher was Japan’s Tomomi Takamatsu in 15th place.
Gidey now joins compatriot Genzebe Dibaba (2008 and 2009) and Kenyans Viola Kibiwott (2001 and 2002) and Faith Kipyegon (2011 and 2013) as an athlete to have successfully defended an U20 women's cross-country title. The 5000m runner hopes this can be a launch pad to a successful senior career.
“I want to compete at the World Championships in London later this year and this performance gives me great motivation,” she explained.
Gidey’s past track experience hasn’t produced much success; she finished just outside the medals at the 2015 World U18 Championships, but at 19 years she still has time to work on it.
Ethiopia beat Kenya to the team title by one point after scoring 19 to take the gold. Uganda’s 62 points was enough for the bronze medal, the country’s second team medal in the category following their bronze in 2010.
There was a pile up at the finish line of the race as athletes collapsed due to exhaustion. Australia’s Georgia Evans attributed it to the rising temperatures, saying: “It's very hot and the hills on the course put a lot of lactic in the legs and so everyone lost a lot of water generally.”
The competition featured 30 nations, 16 fielding full teams.
Celestine Karoney for the IAAF