Athletics: Skah searching for a scrap: Mike Rowbottom reports from Spain on today's world cross-country championships

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THAT Khalid Skah's name means 'runaway' in Arabic is perfectly apt. In an international career which effectively began three years ago the tough little Moroccan has consistently left the world's best middle-distance runners in his wake. What he never runs away from however, is a scrap. And the world cross-country championships which take place here today offer him a wealth of pugnacious possibility.

His principal antagonists, as ever, are the Kenyans, winners of the team event in these championships for the last seven years, whose accompanying sequence of individual titles was disrupted by Skah's victories in 1990 and 1991. The newcomer with the predatory finish perturbed the Kenyans; their response was aggressive.

At the 1991 world track championships they devised a plan to check the Moroccan's ambitions in the 10,000 metres final by delegating Thomas Osano to stay with Skah while Moses Tanui and Richard Chelimo took the race out at a fast pace. Tanui and Chelimo took gold and silver, Skah's late charge earned only the bronze. 'Three people against one is a little hard,' he said.

After last year's world cross-country championships in Boston, where Kenya's John Ngugi - at present suspended by his federation for refusing a drugs test - won a record fifth title, Skah expressed more bitterness over Kenyan tactics after finishing fourth. 'They were pushing me and stepping in front of me,' he said.

Yet it is the Kenyans who come here bent on revenge after the controversy of the Olympic 10,000m final in Barcelona last summer, when the title was stripped from Skah on appeal in favour of the man who finished second, Chelimo, only to be returned within 24 hours following a counter appeal.

Chelimo claimed he had been baulked over the final three laps by a lapped team mate of Skah's, Hammou Boutayeb. Skah denied that he had gained any advantage and insisted that there had been no collusion.

The sympathies of the Barcelona crowd were firmly with Chelimo - Skah was booed like a pantomime villain during his lap of honour and delayed medal ceremony - and a further victory today would not go down well with the locals.

But after the torment he suffered in having his Olympic gold medal taken away - he described the wait before his reinstatement as the worst night of his life - Skah is surely inured to anything. A few boos here would not upset this self-possessed character who lives in Oslo with his Norwegian wife and is fluent in four languages.

Having resolved a dispute with his home federation over an Olympic bonus, which led to him withdrawing his threat to boycott this event, Skah is confident. 'The Kenyans always use the same tactics,' he said. 'But I know how to prepare and beat them.'

Not surprisingly, Sam Suero, the Kenyan team manager, refuses to be drawn on the nature of the tactics being discussed, although he comments: 'Skah doesn't invoke the fear of almighty God.'

However, family pride has been invoked by one of the Kenyans, Ismail Kirui, Chelimo's younger brother, who is determined that the Moroccan should not win again.