Athletics: Tergat on target for new mark

TWELVE KILOMETRES of mud and turf at Belfast's Barnett Demesne stand between Paul Tergat and a place in the World Cross-Country Championship record book.

If the 29-year-old Kenyan can retain his title in Northern Ireland tomorrow he will equal the record set by his compatriot John Ngugi and extend the extraordinary domination of this event by his country.

Kenya have won the men's team title every year and, but for victories by Khalid Skah, of Morocco, in 1990 and 1991, have also held the individual title in that time. It was enough to make even the great Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie give up the challenge. After finishing third in 1994 and fifth two years later, he decided to concentrate on the track - where things have gone tolerably well for him.

Ethiopian hopes now rest on the slim shoulders of a 17-year-old, Milion Wolde, who last month paced Gebrselassie to the latest of his world records, over 5,000m, at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena.

Wolde is far more than a pacemaker, however. World junior champion at cross-country and 5,000m last year, he showed his potential in senior cross-country racing by winning the Durham International event on 2 January, beating a field which included Kenya's highly-rated Thomas Nyariki and Britain's Jon Brown, the 1996 European champion.

Brown, 12th and 14th in the last two years, is seeking to break into the top 10 this time around, with the additional target of being the first European home. But the struggles of Brown, and team-mates such as the trials winner Glyn Tromans, will be a side-show to the main event tomorrow as Kenya and Ethiopia fight out a familiar battle.

Tergat, who briefly held the 10,000m world record in 1997, is believed to be back in top form after pulling out of a race in Italy on 14 March to protect what was described as a slight muscle strain. Among those looking for any sign of weakness, apart from Wolde, will be team-mates Nyariki and Paul Koech, and Salah Hissou, of Morocco, who finished runner-up to Tergat in 1996 and 1997.

The field in each event has been lessened by the reduction of team numbers from nine to six. But this has been balanced by last year's introduction of additional, shorter races of 4.2km for men and women.

Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, winner of both short and long races at last year's championships in Marrakesh, has withdrawn because she is pregnant. That appears to leave the field clear in the 4.2km event for last year's runner-up, Zhara Ouaziz, of Morocco, while the longer race - over 8km today - offers Paula Radcliffe an outstanding chance to improve upon the two silver medals she has won in the past two years.

It will be the fifth time these championships have been hosted by Britain since they began in their current form in 1973, but the choice of Belfast has been invested with understandable significance. According to the IAAF president, Primo Nebiolo, it was "a way of showing the world athletic family's support of the initiatives which culminated in last year's historic peace agreement."

n The Yugoslavian team, which included the women's European bronze medallist, Oliveira Jevtic, have withdrawn from the event due to the military conflict in the southern Balkans.