Athletics: Great prospect sweeps the Great North

Kenyans can only watch the heels of 20-year-old Ethiopian

Exhibition Park was constructed, on the edge of Newcastle's Town Moor, to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The View From Great North Cross Country meeting held within its grounds yesterday was built around the appearance of the woman who became the queen of distance running in 2002. Sadly, Paula Radcliffe could not attend the first engagement of her post-coronation year. A bacterial infection kept the marathon world record holder away from the mud and snow of Tyneside. In her absence, it was the young man who would be king of the male distance running world who stole the new year show.

It took Radcliffe nine years to make the transition from junior to senior World Cross Country Champion, winning the long-course title in Ostend in 2001. Kenenisa Bekele – Kenny to his friends – made it in 12 months. He made it a double, too, taking the senior short-course and long-course titles in his smooth thoroughbred stride at Leopardstown Racecourse on the outskirts of Dublin last year, a year after having won the junior race in Ostend. Radcliffe was a senior world champion at 27, Bekele at 19. The Ethiopian is 20 now and, judging by his imperious form yesterday, his heralding as "the next Haile Gebrselassie" might not be inflated by premature hyperbole.

He turned the showpiece men's 8.8km race into an exhibition in the park, making light of the heavy conditions and the high-class opposition. It was a measure of his performance that his principal rivals – Kenyans Sammy Kipketer, the Commonwealth 5,000m champion, and Paul Kosgei, the world half marathon champion – managed to stay in his slipstream for just two of the seven strength-sapping circuits. Bekele crossed the line looking as comfortable as he did at the start, finishing 15 seconds clear of Kipketer in 29min 12sec. Kosgei was a further eight seconds behind in third place.

Back home, on the roads of Addis Ababa, Bekele is taking driving lessons. On the international running circuit, he has long dispensed with the L-plates. "The conditions were no problem to me," he said. "It is not the first time I have run in snow. I am happy that I have won by such a big margin. It felt easy. I could have continued at the finish."

It was Bekele's third impressive win in three attempts on the European cross country circuit this winter, following equally emphatic successes at Oeiras in Portugal in November and in Brussels last month. He has not been beaten in a cross country race for 13 months, since he finished runner-up to Gebrselassie in Lefrinckoucke, France. He does have an Achilles' heel, though. An injury in that physical department kept him out for four months of the track season last summer. This year, after defending his long-course title at the World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne in March, his major aim is to make his mark on the track.

"I want to run the 5,000m or the 10,000m at the world championships in Paris," he said. "I will run one or the other, not both." Gebrselassie, for one, will await Bekele's decision with interest. The 29-year-old is back in action, and in form after suffering a calf injury in the London Marathon last April. Indeed, he looked a million dollars when he ran in a 10km road race in Doha last month, pocketing that six figure sum for breaking Kipketer's world best road time for the distance, with a time of 27min 02sec. Gebrselassie's main target for 2003 is to challenge for a fifth successive 10,000m world title in Paris.

Bekele happens to share the same manager as Gebrselassie, Jos Hermens, the Dutchman who has held the world best track time for 10 miles since 1975. He also comes from Arsi, the same region of Ethiopia as Gebrselassie, and trains twice a week with the multi-world record holder in Addis Ababa, where they both have homes. In fact, he has no greater admirer than the man known in Ethiopia as 'the Emperor'. "He can beat my 5,000m and 10,000m world records," Gebrselassie has said of his fast-emerging countryman.

It has taken Rob Whalley rather longer to emerge as a winner in Britain's premier cross country meeting. Ten years ago he finished second in the 4.1km short-course race. Yesterday, at the age of 34, the City of Stoke athlete was a clear winner. "I'm having hypnotherapy to cure my asthma," he said. "It has been a problem for me in the past, particularly in the summer, but now I can control it, rather than let it control me." Whalley's controlled run from gun to tape yesterday provided the only home win of the day.

The women's 6.8km race was won by Edith Masai, the Kenyan prison warder who took the Commonwealth 5,000m silver medal in Manchester last summer – 22.34sec behind a majestic Paula Radcliffe.

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