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Harmony is the name of the game

EBONY and ivory were in perfect harmony at the World Cross-country Championships.

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In a sporting world obsessed by sagas of sleaze -- of bribery and corruption, of convicted thug footballers, and rapist boxers -- it was refreshing to leave old Durham town to such an upbeat tune of hope.

True, Britain's deficiencies were mercilessly exposed: the best UK placing was Paula Radcliffe's eighteenth, in the senior women's race.

But sincere warmth between black and white rivals was an eloquent emissary ahead of next year's event, being hosted in Cape Town, the first athletic championship in the rehabilitated Republic of South Africa.

Kenya claimed all four team titles at the Snickers-backed championships on Saturday: the senior men's gold, through Paul Tergat, and six of the 12 individual medals available. Ethiopia took the junior men's and senior women's titles, plus three team silvers.

Yet Finnish teenager Annmarie Sandell proved it is possible to take a title out of the hands of Africans, even if she had to join them to do so.

Sandell received leave of absence from high school to spend the last seven weeks living and training with the Kenyan team at their altitude camp in Embu. A Finnish male athlete returned home, unable to cope with 5am reveille, and three daily training sessions of six miles each.

After having won by five seconds, Sandell, stereotypical Finn, pale with golden hair, warmly embraced the contrasting Kenyans, her training partners, who followed her over the line.

But the symbolism was lost on Sandell's coach, Lasse Olav Mikkelsson, who leaned more to pragmatism: ''Our life is so easy, too many cars and video games. In Kenya, they walk or run everywhere -- no cars.''

Ireland's Catherina McKiernan also beat the Kenyans, but was eight seconds behind Olympic 10,000m champion Derartu Tulu.

Tulu won against the odds. She lost last year to a knee injury. This time she overcame a nightmare journey from Ethiopia which wrecked the hopes of men's world 10,000m champion Haile Gebresilassie.

Visa and financial problems saw the Ethiopians relieved of their passports for security, and packed, several to a room, in an Athens hotel on Thursday night. They pooled what they had to pay the bill, but could afford no food.

Having been in transit since Wednesday, the team finally arrived in London on Friday. No flights were available to Newcastle, so they made the seven-hour, 300-mile trip by public bus, arriving at midnight, less than 12 hours before the first race.

Yet when Tulu led the break which dispatched Radcliffe back through the field, to finish broken and weeping, she exhorted McKiernan, in English: ''Come on! Come on!''

McKiernan obeyed, and soon they were clear, alone, but only to be rewarded with her fourth runners-up medal in as many years -- each behind a different winner. Her placing, however, won the Worldcross series outright, and its $10,000 prize.

''Bitter? How can I be?'' said the girl from County Cavan. ''How can anyone handle Tulu on a day like this? But some day the sun will shine for me.

''She was encouraging me to go with her. How can you feel angry with a girl like that? But until I win, I'll keep trying.''

Tulu, runner-up to Liz McColgan for the 1991 world 10,000m title, said: ''I love Catherina a lot . . . we are friends and rivals. We are sisters.''

She could afford to smile, but compatriot Gebresilassie was in tears. Fiercely critical of his federation, he said: ''They made two big mistakes. They did not organise our travel properly, and they left out three good men.''

The trio were dropped because they ran for money three weeks ago in Italy. ''Otherwise we'd have won the team race for sure.''

As a consequence, Gebresilassie was left unsupported in the leading group, facing Kenyan team tactics alone. He finished fourth, two places ahead of European champion Paula Guerra, of Portugal.

Tergat -- in his native tongue his name means ''one who stands or walks with head bent to one side'' -- stooped to conquer. He finished eight seconds clear of Ismael Kirui, leading Kenya to their tenth successive senior team title.

World 5000m gold medallist Kirui admitted to sacrificing himself to set up Tergat with a late surge which Gebresilassie had little option but to cover.

The IAAF, who gave Ethiopian officials more than sufficient funds to bring the team, were horrified at the athletes' plight. ''If we intervene, like we did in trying to bring Linford Christie to the indoor championships earlier this month, we are accused of meddling,'' said spokesman Chris Winner. ''If we stand clear, we risk seeing a champion like Gebresilassie reduced to despair.''

The time for the opening 10,000m of the men's race, 28-22, was achieved by just one UK track runner last year -- and this was on rough, hilly ground. Such pace left Scots Tommy Murray and Robert Quinn eighty-first and 100th respectively. Murray dropped 10 places in a furious final 480m. But they performed creditably among 227 starters, particularly given that Olympic 5000m champion Dieter Baumann was ninety-second, and UK champion Spencer Duval 121st.

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