Racing: Durham can be stepping stone for Radcliffe

Many have been called but two too few have chosen to run in today's international cross-country event at Durham. But the fields remain stronger, Mike Rowbottom reports

Britain's top cross-country exponents, Paula Radcliffe and Jon Brown, return to domestic action at today's Durham international event seeking to establish their credentials as potential medallists this season.

Radcliffe, second in last year's World Championships, is chasing a third victory in this event. The British 5,000 metres record holder feels she can strike gold in either the Commonwealth Games or European Championships this season.

"Winning is important for me, but I also have to look to the long term," said Radcliffe, who has missed the Durham race only once since the IAAF World Cross Challenge event began in 1988.

Radcliffe's outstanding performance at the World Championships in Turin, where she missed adding the senior title to the junior version she earned in 1992 by a matter of a few yards, has seen her become far more particular about her racing calendar.

"For that event I got my preparations absolutely right," she said. "I restricted my competitive programme, went to altitude training, then won a silver medal.''

After Durham, she will compete in Belfast on 24 January and Tourcoing in France a week later before training in the altitude of New Mexico.

Her task today on a tough, undulating course overlooking Durham cathedral will be far from straightforward.

She faces the world 10,000 metres champion, Sally Barsosio of Kenya, and Catherina McKiernan, the highly experienced Irishwoman who has won a four world cross-country silver medals and will make her domestic marathon debut in London this spring after becoming the fastest woman debutant at the event in October.

A further challenge on a mud-bound course could come from Irina Mikitenko, of Khazakstan, who is now based in Germany.

"There's no way I'll be underestimating anybody," Radcliffe said. "Barsosio can be indifferent, but McKiernan's past record is proof of her ability, whatever the conditions.''

Brown, who chose not to defend his European title last month, has always planned to include Durham in his schedule - but the same cannot be said for the leading names the organisers have attempted to bring to the field.

Earlier this week Kenya's world 3,000m steeplechase champion, Wilson Boit Kipketer, rendered himself ineligible after failing to pick up a visa that had been made ready for him at the British Embassy in Nairobi.

And yesterday it was confirmed that the man who was to have taken Kipketer's place, the former world champion Khalid Skah, had withdrawn at the orders of his national federation.

Thomas Nyariki, Kenya's world bronze medallist, will now provide the main test to the Vancouver-based Brown, who will be running in Sheffield's colours. He will also be challenged by fellow Briton Keith Cullen.

"You have got to expect the unexpected in this game," said a race organiser - rather politely in the circumstances.

Skah was ordered home by the Moroccan Athletic Federation, who host this year's World Championships in March. The Moroccans are keen to end Kenya's domination of the event and want Skah, who lives in Paris, to prepare along with his team-mates.

The Moroccan has twice been the individual cross- country world champion, winning the event in 1990 and '91.

The Durham race organiser, Nigel Gough, said: "Khalid is extremely upset at what is going on and, as a senior international athlete and former Olympic 10,000 metres champion, he just cannot understand why he's being told that he cannot race in Durham or anywhere else."