The IAAF World Cross-country Championships returns to Africa for the fourth time with Kampala’s Kololo Independence Grounds hosting the 42nd edition from March 26.
Pundits could have already projected another explosive Kenya vs Ethiopia rivalry, but hosts Uganda plans to unleash a different card that could surprise the world beaters.
Former Kenyans and Ethiopians running for other countries could also bring a new shift to the championships, reminiscence of the 2007 edition in Mombasa when former Kenyan Lorna Kiplagat representing the Netherland, won the senior women’s race.
Moroccan Mohammed Mourhit, who was competing for his newly-adopted nation of Belgium, halted Kenya’s five-year dominance in the senior men’s race with victories in 1999 (Belfast, Northern Ireland) and 2000 (Vilamoura, Portugal).
Kenya’s Paul Tergat had just made history as the second athlete to win five senior men’s titles with his fifth successive victory at the 1998 championships in Marrakech, Morocco, when Africa hosted the championships for the second time after 1996 (Stellenbosch, South Africa).
Since Mourhit’s victory in 2000, Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated with only one an Eritrean Zersenay Tadesse, spoiling the party with victory at the 2007 Mombasa contest.
Kenya has three wins with Ethiopians claiming a lion’s share of eight victories since 2000, six by legendary Kenenisa Bekele.
There are other Kenyan and Ethiopian born athletes who will be competing for the US, Bahrain, Turkey and Qatar in Kampala.
Besides the senior men and women’s 10-kilometre race and junior men (8km) and junior women (6km), the newly introduced mixed relays that will get the proceedings off at 2pm on Sunday, should bring out some excitement.
Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda teased each other by naming strong teams for the championships.
Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich stunned the world when he won the World Championships marathon gold medal in Moscow in 2013, a year after clinching the Olympic title in London.
He leads the hosts’ charge at Kololo, and takes the battle to the Kenyans after training in Kaptagat, Kenya.
Kiprotich teams up in the senior men’s team with 2014 World Junior Championships 10,000 metres gold medalist Joshua Cheptegei, Mande Bushendich, Stephen Kissa, Abdalla Kibet Mande, Philip Kipyeko, Fred Musobo and Timothy Toroitich.
“I want to welcome team Kenya in Kampala and they should feel at home but I must warn them that they should prepare for a real battle. This time since the competition is at home, we will run as a team and go for gold,” said Kiprotich.
Kenyan senior men will be chasing their 15th individual crown, having won the last two editions through Japheth Korir in 2013 and Geoffrey Kamworor in 2015 even though the team title escaped them.
Kenya’s senior women have marvelled in glory, winning the past five editions with Agnes Tirop becoming the youngest athlete to don the crown at the age of 19 during the 2015 competition in Guiyang, China.
The Kenyan women could have dominated but the team title escaped them in 2015 with Ethiopia ending the country’s four-year reign.
Kenyan junior men haven’t won since Kamworor’s exploits in 2011 with Ethiopians dominating.
Hagos Gebrhiwet and Hassan Haji claimed victories in 2013 and 2015 respectively and in 2015 though, Kenya reclaimed the team title from Ethiopia who had halted it’s 14-year reign in 2013.
It’s in Guiyang where Ethiopia also brought Kenya’s three-year supremacy in the junior women’s race to a halt when Letesenbet Gidey triumphed.
In fact, Gidey led her fellow country women to lock out Kenya from a podium finish for the first time since 2004 as they also reclaimed team title.
Kenya’s Mercy Cherono had won 2010 with Faith Chepng’etich, the Rio Olympics 1,500 metres champion, roping in a double in 2011 and 2013.
Both the defending champions Kamworor and Tirop, who had just recovered from injuries to train for less than a month, managed to claim places in Team Kenya.
Kamworor’s team that has an interesting blend of youth and experience, comprises Japan-based Leonard Barsoton, who won silver in the junior race at the 2013 World Cross Country Championships and finished fifth in senior race in 2015.
Barsaton will be making a return to the familiar Kololo course where he won the 2014 Africa Cross Country Championships’ senior title, his maiden senior title.
Another interesting entry is Leonard Komon who won junior silver medal at the 2006 World Cross Country Championships before finishing fourth in the junior race at the 2007 Mombasa meet.
Komon went on to win silver in senior men’s race in 2008 before finishing fourth in 2010.
“We have trained well and we leave the rest to God,” said Komon, who is the “Team Kenya” captain.
Kenya will face an Ethiopian team that has national 5,000m champion Getaneh Tamire Molla, who defended his title during the Ethiopian trials.