Tough conditions make for a true test of stamina, but Kenyan men prove to be unbeatable
ON A trail designed to restore traditional European values to the sport, and in rain, mud, wind, and cold calculated to intimidate and undermine the spirit of African runners, Paul Tergat yesterday proved himself the ultimate man for all courses in Belfast.
He won the men's long event at the World cross-country championships for a record fifth successive time, and with five runners in the first six, extended Kenya's unbroken monopoly of the men's team title to 14 years. Tergat has also been in seven of these winning teams and is now the most prolific holder of world gold.
Only one man, his countryman John Ngugi, had won five times, but not in succession, and mentally and physically, the 29-year-old Tergat confessed that this was the hardest of all his victories, so draining that he declined to commit even to attempting a sixth next year. As world record holder at the half marathon, and holder of World and Olympic silver medals at 10,000 metres on the track, he wants to cap his career with gold in Seville this summer.
''After that, I will think again about cross-country, and maybe the marathon,'' he said. ''We knew this wasn't an easy course, and particularly in such weather. It proves our athletes can cope with all terrain. It will give them more confidence.''
The last thing Europe's athletes need is Africans with even greater faith in their ability.
The dark continent put the rest of the world in the shade, taking 28 of the 36 team and individual medals over the two days. Yet there was hope for European runners. Britain's Paula Radcliffe took bronze in the women's long event on Saturday, and Paulo Guerra, the Portuguese who won the European title in 1994 and '95, claimed a hard-fought bronze behind Tergat.
John Brown's eighth place, third European, was also the best finish by a Briton since 1989.
France, led by Moroccan-born and trained Yamna Belkacem, who was second behind Kenya's Jackline Maranga, won the women's short course gold yesterday, only the second time the event has been contested.
Saturday's longcourse event had seemed Radcliffe's best chance to improve on successive silvers of the past two years. Instead, Radcliffe, who will be bridesmaid at team-mate Liz Talbot's wedding next weekend, found herself in rehearsal mode.
Ethiopian Gete Wami proved far too tough. Not even a cold could remove Wami's edge, as she ran away from her rivals over the final 1600m. In the past two years she had finished third, behind Radcliffe.
This time it was the English girl who was left in pursuit, and spent herself chasing only to be caught for silver 15 metres from the line, out-sprinted by another Ethiopian, Merima Denboba.
Radcliffe will have the chance of revenge on Scottish soil at the end of next month, when the pair meet over 10,000m on the road, at Balmoral.
Scotland's British hill-race champion, Angela Mudge finished forty-fifth and was part of the UK team which finished seventh. She plans to consult Vikki McPherson, the City of Glasgow woman who had to withdraw from the team, about how to sharpen up for this intensity of competition.
Across the whole British team, lack of pace was a critical limiting factor.
The Africans proved the home surface did not favour UK athletes. A greater emphasis on speed development, rather than the obsession with logging miles, slogging it out, is surely overdue.