Athletics: Farah's mission to take on Africans at their own game

Britain's European cross country winner faces an Ethiopian icon and a strong home team in the World Championships in Mombasa tomorrow. Mike Rowbottom reports
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Nobody could accuse Mo Farah of taking the easy option this season. Britain's athlete of the year for 2006 gave his all in Birmingham earlier this month in a vain quest for a European Indoor 3,000 metres medal that was undermined by a heavy fall in his heat. Briefly, the disorientated Briton ran the wrong way round the track in his efforts to get back into that race. Tomorrow, in the scorching heat of Mombasa, he will effectively be running into the jaws of a monster as he seeks success in the World Cross Country Championships.

It is a measure of just how monstrous that challenge is that the 23-year-old Briton, who took European 5,000m silver last summer before winning the European Cross Country title with relative ease, will regard as successful any position within the top 20. It may sound like a lack of ambition, but it is simply a realistic assessment of a race traditionally dominated by African runners, which, in Farah's own description, involves "starting fast, running fast in the middle and then finishing fast."

Farah sees it as a necessary step to become a challenger for medals at world, rather than European levels, and, backed by his talented coach, Alan Storey, he has taken the long view on his career. It is to his credit as an athlete with serious ambition, but he will suffer for it in Mombasa tomorrow - and, probably, for years to come.

It took Paula Radcliffe six years of unremitting effort, and spirit-sapping defeats, before she finally broke through to claim the women's title in Ostend in 2001, which she retained a year later. She has always viewed it as equivalent to an Olympic title, and that claim has much to commend it.

Consider the proposition facing Farah, whose preparations - as if he needed any further challenge - have been affected by recent illness. The Olympic Games attracts the finest athletes in the world, but in terms of men's middle distance running, they tend to spread themselves over several events, the 3,000m steeplechase, the 5,000m and the 10,000m - and perhaps the marathon. And in each event Kenya and Ethiopia are only able to field three athletes.

The World Cross Country allows teams of nine, and, as of this year, the experiment of splitting the event into two races - over 12km and 4km for the men, and 8km and 4km for the women - has been discontinued after nine years. We are back to one big race now - and following Kenenisa Bekele's change of heart two weeks ago, we're also looking at a man who is as big a favourite to win as any of the great Kenyan champions of the past.

The Ethiopian is seeking to set a record of six wins in the men's event, surpassing the achievement of Kenya's John Ngugi, who won from 1986 to 1989 and again in 1992, and Paul Tergat, who won from 1995 to 1999. Of course, Bekele has had the opportunity the earlier pair lacked in running a short race as well. He has won all of those for good measure. Bekele's arrival on the world cross country scene effectively tipped the balance of power on grass from east to north-east Africa, just as, decades earlier, the power had tipped to Africa from Europe.

Although the World Cross Country Championships have existed under that name since 1973, although in their previous incarnation of the International Cross Country Championships they have been going since 1903.

The last Briton to win was Ian Stewart in 1975. There was a European victor in the form of Portugal's Carlos Lopes, who completed a hat-trick of titles in 1985. Three years later, Britain's Tim Hutchings pushed the great Ngugi all the way on a quagmire of a course at Stavanger in Norway. No one from the European continent managed to get as close to the men's individual gold until 2001, when Ukraine's Sergey Lebed took silver behind Mohammed Mourhit. The latter was a Moroccan, although he won the title in 2000 and 2001 for his naturalised country, Belgium.

The senior men's team title has been won by either Kenya or Ethiopia since 1981. And over the course of the last 20 years, Kenya have taken more than 50 per cent of all medals available at the championships.

For most of the Eighties and early Nineties, indeed, the Kenyans dominated to such an extent that they were able to win as they pleased. The Kenyan approach was typified at the 1993 World Cross Country Championships in Amorebieta, where the closing stages of the race saw a pack of five of their runners clear of the rest of the field.

In the last 500 metres, the leader, Dominic Kirui, slowed to allow William Sigei through for gold, "In our training before the race, we saw that Sigei was just better," Kirui explained. "It was just decided that I would make a good pacemaker for him."

The plans had been laid by Kenya's head coach, Mike Kosgei, who beamed with satisfaction in the aftermath of the race. "Sigei was our darling in the race," he said. "When he was running on his own in third place, I told him to stay there. We didn't want anybody to jostle or spike him."

Thus Sigei, who was to break the world 10,000 metres title the following summer, inherited his rightful due on a day when the Kenyans managed to settle two other scores, much to their satisfaction. Beaten into sixth place was Morocco's Khalid Skah, who had had the temerity to interrupt Kenya's domination by taking the 1990 and 1991 titles, and then compounding matters by winning the 1992 Olympic 10,000m title in a controversial race where Kenya claimed their silver medallist Richard Chelimo had been baulked by one of Skah's team-mates.

A place behind the volatile Moroccan was the pride of Ethiopia, Haile Gebrselassie, victorious over Kenyan opponents in every big track meeting. Without a strong team around him, even Gebrselassie could not combat the ruling force over grass, and he eventually gave the event up as a lost cause. But then another immensely talented Ethiopian arrived in the shape of Bekele.

"I think Bekele is still the top favourite for the men's senior title," was yesterday's assessment from the Irish coach Colm O'Connell, who trains Kenya's 2006 4km silver medallist Isaac Songok and the Commonwealth 5,000m champion Augustine Choge. "For a country that has dominated the world cross country for two decades, it would be disappointing not to win the senior men's title, but that is the reality they have to confront."

Farah's reality will be equally testing.

England's years of domination are only a distant memory

Like the Premiership, the World Cross Country Championships are only the latest incarnation of a venerable competition. Before their inception in 1973, the men's event was known as the International Cross Country Championships. The first running, in 1903, was won by England's Alf Shrubb.

That victory was the first of eight consecutive ones for England, whose domination continued in the years between the World Wars, with Jack Holden earning four individual golds.

After the Second World War, a greater share of European nations, notably France and Belgium, forced their way into the picture, but England still won on a regular basis thanks to athletes such as Frank Sando, Basil Heatley, Geoff Saunders, Stan Eldon and Fred Norris.

In 1962, Belgium's Gaston Roelants won the first of what would be four titles, including the last one in 1972.

A year earlier England had claimed the title through Dave Bedford, whose outstanding talent earned him relatively little in the way of gold medals, but did see him set a world 10,000m record two years afterwards.

The women's title has been won just four times since 1973 by British runners - Zola Budd, the swiftly naturalised South African, won in 1984 and 1985, and Paula Radcliffe triumphed at Ostend in 2001 before retaining her title the following year in Dublin.