Athletics: Britain looking to raise cross-country profile

The Parco del Valentino in the centre of Turin, its surrounding roads turfed over at a reputed cost of pounds 1m, awaits entrants from a record number of 68 countries for the 25th World Cross-Country Championships tomorrow. But one country stands alone once again, writes Mike Rowbottom.

Asked whether he could foresee Kenya failing to maintain their domination of this event over the last decade, the British team manager, Dave Clarke, had a bold stab. "Kenyans don't run well on... something?"

If the image of snow had been forming in Clarke's mind, it was obviously superceded by the memory of John Ngugi charging through the white wastes of Boston in 1992 to win his fifth individual title.

That particular position has been kept in Kenyan possession since by William Sigei and Paul Tergat, who is seeking his hat-trick. Kenya's men have won every team title since 1986; they also hold the individual and team titles at junior level, while Kenya's woman hold the senior and junior team titles.

The most likely challenger to the Kenyans' men's pre- eminence is Salah Hissou, the Moroccan who followed his silver medal of last year with a world 10,000 metres record of 26min 38.08sec.

But where does this leave Britain? Success at the European Cross-country Championships in December, when Jon Brown took the individual title and the women's team finished third, moving up to the silver position following the disqualification of Romania, has raised the domestic profile in the sport.

The squad goes to Italy with the realistic ambition of finishing as the top European team in both senior events. To do so, the men will have to reverse the position of last year when they finished 50 points adrift of the fourth-placed Spaniards.

Brown, top individual European last year in 12th place, is set on a top 10 position this year. He beat Tergat over a muddy course in Seville in December, but he cannot hope for similar conditions at an occasion which is being stage-managed by Primo Nebiolo, the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

Keith Cullen and Andrew Pearson both look capable of a top 25 finish, which would put Britain within reach of their target. Glynn Tromans, making his British debut just 10 months after having two heart operations, is seeking a top 50 place in what is only his second race abroad.

The women are led by the top Briton in the European Championships, Hayley Haining, Lucy Elliott - currently third in the World Cross Challenge standings - and Paula Radcliffe, who has been preparing at altitude in Albuquerque.

But with nine entrants per country in the men's events, and seven for the women, this is a fearsomely tough competition. "To most people, a top 30 place sounds rubbish," Clarke said. "But to anyone who knows the sport, it is an awesome run."

Whatever the result, the event this year is likely to provide a memorable spectacle. Nebiolo has spoken hopefully of attracting 20,000 spectators to the city centre - and, what Nebiolo wants, he usually gets.

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