Athletics: Kipchoge outstrips the mud pack

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The Independent Online

It was for its classical architecture and its elegant follies that Edinburgh was christened "the Athens of the North". In the shadow of Arthur's Seat yesterday, though, it was the figures picking an improbably high- speed path through the mud of Holyrood Park that brought a touch of the Greek capital to the principal city of Caledonia.

It was for its classical architecture and its elegant follies that Edinburgh was christened "the Athens of the North". In the shadow of Arthur's Seat yesterday, though, it was the figures picking an improbably high- speed path through the mud of Holyrood Park that brought a touch of the Greek capital to the principal city of Caledonia.

When it came to not so much the crunch as the squelch in the closely contested finishes to the main events on the programme in the View From Great Edinburgh International Cross Country, two athletes who made it on to the podium in the Athenian Olympic Stadium last summer emerged as victors. In the men's 9km race, Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan who took Olympic 5,000m bronze behind Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele, sprinted clear of Dejene Berhanu of Ethiopia. In the women's 6km event, Tirunesh Dibaba, the Ethiopian who won bronze in the women's 5,000m final in Athens, prevailed ahead of Benita Johnson, the reigning world cross-country long-course champion from Australia.

Neither result was a great surprise. At the ages of 20 and 19 respectively, Kipchoge and Dibaba are already established as distance runners of the highest pedigree. In the summer of 2003 they were both teenage 5,000m winners at the World Championships in Paris. On the evidence they showed in the heavy going yesterday, they will take some stopping when they come to defend their global crowns in Helsinki this coming August.

Kipchoge pushed the pace from the start of his race and showed his mettle when Berhanu, fifth in the 5,000m in Athens, swooped past as they rounded into the long finishing straight. Gritting his teeth, the Kenyan swiftly regained the lead and held on to win by a second, crossing the line in 27min 43sec. Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia took third place and the first British finisher was Gavin Thompson of Crawley, 2min and 8sec behind Kipchoge in 12th place.

For Kipchoge, it was a triumph that left him with mixed emotions. "My aim was to win and restore the great name of Kenya," he said. Asked, though, whether he could keep Kenya's name ahead of the peerless Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele at this year's World Cross Country Championships, Kipchoge replied: "Now is not the time to talk about beating Kenenisa. It would be wrong to talk about it when he is mourning."

Kipchoge was only added to the field for yesterday's race as a late replacement for Bekele, whose fiancée, Alem Techale, collapsed and died while accompanying him on a training run on the outskirts of Addis Ababa 12 days ago. Techale herself had made her mark as a runner at global level, as the winner of the world youth 1500m title in 2003. Her death at the age of 18 has been a loss not just to Bekele, the Olympic 10,000m champion, but also to Ethiopian athletics.

Such is the country's wealth of talent that Dibaba had never trained with her. "I didn't know her," she said. Nevertheless, Dibaba's success yesterday will have lifted a little of the dark mood that has engulfed Ethiopian sport in the past fortnight.

The diminutive 19-year-old is a poetic runner in motion, even over the most unyielding of terrain. Though Johnson dug deep in an attempt to leave her stuck in the mud yesterday, Dibaba never once lost her assured bearing or her smooth-striding style. After sprinting clear of Johnson, to win by a second in 21min 35sec, Dibaba looked as fresh-faced as she had done on the start line.

"I am now going to concentrate on running indoors," she said. "I will be running in the Boston Games on 29 January, in a 5,000m race." Bekele is due to compete at the same meeting.

Such was the strength in depth of the women's field that Susan Chepkemei - the Kenyan who pushed Paula Radcliffe to the wire in the New York Marathon in November, and who will face the Briton again in the Flora London Marathon on 17 April - could finish only sixth, one place ahead of Dibaba's elder sister, Ejegayehu, the Olympic 10,000m champion.

In such exalted company, Hayley Yelling and Kathy Butler had to battle hard, and did well to fly the British flag as high as eighth and ninth respectively.

The one British success of the day came in the men's 4km short-course race. It was guaranteed - the field being entirely domestic - but Nick McCormick was a mightily impressive winner nevertheless. At 23, the Morpeth Harrier is fast emerging as a middle-distance force in Britain, astutely guided by Lindsay Dunn, the coach who steered Brendan Foster and Charlie Spedding to Olympic medal-winning heights.

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