For all Italy's rich distance running tradition, stretching back to the doddering Dorando Pietri, an Italian has never emerged victorious from what Time magazine has called "the greatest foot race in the world".
Even in the days before the Kenyans and Ethiopians turned the main event into a quasi-East African championship, Italian success was restricted to the women's race, in which the Paolas Pigni and Cacchi both prevailed in the early 1970s. There will be home celebrations tonight, though, if Paul Tergat shows the opposition, the spike-shoed azzurri among them, a muddied pair of heels.
Tergat was clad in the red, white and green of Kenya when he won in Durham in 1995 and in Stellenbosch last year. He will be again today when he chases his hat-trick in the Parco del Valentino. But the man who gave Haile Gebrselassie an almighty run for his shoe contract bonus money in last summer's Olympic 10,000m final owes more than a minor allegiance to Italy. Tergat, in fact, has a flat in the Alpine foothills at Brescia. His home remains in Kenya but since 1992 he has spent much of his time in northern Italy.
The link is his coach, Dr Gabriele Rosa, an exercise physiologist, who has headed a centre for distance runners in Brescia for the past 14 years. At the heart of the complex is an exercise- training laboratory where Tergat and the other members of Dr Rosa's elite training squad, Team Fila, undergo regular testing. The group's first success was Gianni Poli, winner of the 1986 New York marathon. But the Rosa camp will claim only a share of the glory should the star pupil come top of the world class again this afternoon.
As Tergat's agent, Gianni di Madonna, said: "Paul's specific preparation for the world cross country is always at the Kenyan training camp, working out in the hills back home for a month beforehand. But Italy is Paul's second home. There is something of the Italian in him. And, naturally, Italy will be happy if he wins for a third time."
Reports from the Kenyan camp say Tergat and Paul Koech, winner of the national trial in Nairobi last month, will be the men to beat. But the Moroccans could have the final word if Salah Hissou has retained the form that took him five seconds inside Gebrselassie's 10,000m world record in Brussels last August.
As for Britain's Jon Brown, who beat Tergat in Spain in December, becoming the first non-African to place in the top five since 1989 would be a triumph in itself. "It's an achievement just to beat one of the Kenyans in this race," he said. However, Tergat himself has singled out the Briton as his toughest challenger.Reuse content