World Cross-county: THE Wellington Hippodroom

in Ostend, venue for the World Cross-country championships this weekend, is named in honour of the Duke of Wellington, and his victories over the Emperor Napoleon.

Today, the coastal town's fading racecourse, owned by the royal family, is the muddy battle-ground upon which Paula Radcliffe will stake all on winning a title which she regards as important as Olympic gold. She prays this will not be her Waterloo.

The ubiquitous volunteers, wearing T-shirts bearing the logo: ''Dublin 2001'' are a poignant reminder of how Belgium inherited this event. They have pulled it together in three weeks, despite a national rail strike, after Ireland had to abort because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

The world half marathon champion, Radcliffe had men-

tally prepared herself for yielding ground at Leopardstown, so no surprise lies in wait here. In equine parlance the going is so soft as to favour abandonment, but in this most demanding of sports, runs take place irrespective of surface, or the weather which yesterday demolished marquees and the finish gantry.

''I don't like clay. That pulls your shoes off, but it's probably better mud here,'' opined Radcliffe, as if savouring a fine claret.

The 28-year-old Bedford woman has two chances at gold this weekend. Today's three-race programme ends with the women's long race, over 7700 metres, the event in which she was placed fifth last year. That was her only time out of the medals since 1996, after having claimed two silvers and a bronze.

Tomorrow, however, she also intends to attempt the four-kilometre short race, a winning

double only once achieved, by Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, who has yet to confirm if she will toe the start line.

''I'm thinking only about the long race,'' insists Radcliffe. ''I regard it as the real world title, and will not be saving anything for the next day. If I feel OK, I'll run it.

''This is as important to me as the Olympic title. It is as hard to win - harder, because all the quality athletes from the 5000, 10,000, and marathon come together here, and are not spread over three events.''

She has prepared meticul-ously, living and training for five weeks at altitude in Albuquerque, New Mexico. ''I've done that every year since '97 - so that I can train alone, without distractions.''

Kathy Butler, Scotland's 1500m champion, who is attempting to establish herself as a Commonwealth contender, could challenge for a medal in the short race. She was fourth, wearing Canada's colours, in Belfast two years ago, but led Britain to European silver last December, having changed allegiance. She reached the World Indoor 3000m final a fortnight ago, in Lisbon.

''I abandoned plans to stay on in Portugal, because of a cold,'' she said. ''I prefer to train on country, but foot and mouth forced me onto the Thames tow path. I am over the cold, though, and I'm optimistic.''

Collette Fagan, from City of Glasgow, is refreshingly positive. ''Training in Portugal went well, and I'm looking forward to it,'' said Liz McColgan's protege, who captured a record six Scottish schools cross-country titles. ''One goal is to be first Briton - revenge over Louise Damen and Emma Ward, who beat me in the trial.''

A member of Britain's gold-medal European squad, the 18-year-old Coatbridge woman is in the first race today, at 12.05, UK time. ''It is very muddy, but it's the same for everyone,'' she added. ''Strong runners will go well on any surface.''

Glen Stewart has long disliked such conditions, but overcame heavy going to finish second in the men's short trial. He sampled the course yesterday, and knows it could prove the worst he has ever run on. Yet he was upbeat. ''It is heavy and soft, but we're here for the world championships - you have to get on with it.''

Second out of the start pen, he will gauge himself on UK champion Spencer Barden, doing the 4000m event for the third successive year. ''Last year the leaders covered the first 1000m in 2min 25sec, and the Brits were 15 seconds down. We can't afford to lose it like that early on.''

Mohamed Farah, Somalian-born, but a UK resident since the age of 10, was tripped when in title contention at the Europeans. He has put that behind him, and may be a junior medal contender.

Ethiopia's Gete Wami is

chasing her third title, yet claiming: ''there are hundreds like me at home'', with a formidably experienced Kenyan cohort headed by Susan Chipkemei and Lydia Cheromei in the running.

l THE first international cross-country championships ware held in Scotland, over the Duke of Hamilton's estate and the adjoining race course, on March 28, 1903.

l ENGLAND won the 1903 team race ahead of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. France entered in 1907. A record 900 athletes from 70 countries will compete in Ostend.

l IN recognition of Scotland's historic role, the 2003 European championships will be held at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh.

l WHEN the world event was last staged on this Ostend race course, 36 years ago, Jean Fayolle, of France, beat England's Mel Batty in a dip finish.

l LAST Briton to win a senior world title was Scotland's Ian Stewart, 26 years ago in Morocco.