Exhibition Park was built on the outskirts of Newcastle to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee with a display of the wealth of industrial resources in the North-east of England. Yesterday, its muddy grounds were a showcase for the continuing strength of East African distance running - an ominous sign for the rest of the world at the start of Olympic year.
As the two feature races in the annual View From Great North Cross Country unfolded, the words of 1970s glamrockers Sweet sprang to mind. In the men's 8.7km event and the women's 6.3km, it was indeed a Teenage Rampage.
The races featured two of the greatest distance runners of all time, Paul Tergat and Deratu Tulu. But the two thirtysomethings were left trailing behind teenagers who have already made a mark on the global stage. The men's race was won by Sileshi Sihine, the 19-year-old who took the World Championship 10,000m bronze medal behind his fellow Ethiopians and fellow training partners Kene-nisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie in Paris last Aug-ust. The women's race was won by another Ethiopian, Tirunesh Dibaba, who was just 36 days past her 18th birthday when she sprinted to victory in the 5,000m final in the Stade de France five months ago.
Tergat, 34, was struggling to keep up with not one, but two teenagers from the start of his race. He finally lost touch with Sihine and Eliud Kipchoge on the fifth of seven cloying laps. In Paris last summer Kipchoge caused one of the upsets of the World Championships, outsprinting Hicham El Guerrouj, the 1500m champion, and Bekele to win the 5,000m crown at 18. Now 19, the Kenyan was beaten yesterday when Sihine launched a decisive attack on a short, steep hill with 200m remaining.
Sihine prevailed by six seconds, in 26min 15sec, with Tergat third in 26:41. "My plan was to go off fast from the start," the victor said. His plans, in the build up to the track season, include a return to Britain, to race Bekele over 5,000m in the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham next month, followed by a bid for Bekele's world cross-country long-course crown in Brussels in March. He has already followed in Bekele's footsteps by winning in Newcastle. His 21-year-old training companion won the new year race in 2001 and 2002.
For Tergat, the Tyneside experience was something of a step backwards,as he had opened his winter season with a victory in the Belgian CrossCup race in Brussels a fortnight ago. "It was difficult for me, with the young men running so well," he said. "They surprised me when they went off so quickly."
The focal point for Tergat in 2004 is the Olympic marathon. The stretch of road from Marathon to Athens will determine whether the tall, angular Kenyan will end his distinguished distance- running career with the ultimate seal of Olympic gold or with a surfeit of silver linings. On the country, he has won five world titles. On the road, he has set world records for the marathon and the half-marathon. On the track, he has broken the world record for 10,000m, but in two World Championship finals and two Olympic finals at the distance he has finished runner-up to Gebrselassie, his Ethiopian nemesis.
"The Olympic marathon will be the climax of everything for me," Tergat said. In Berlin last September, he became the first man to break 2hr 5min, clocking 2hr 4min 55sec. He plans to tackle the London Marathon in his build-up to Athens, though he has yet to decide whether to challenge for a sixth world cross-country title in Brussels.
Dibaba intends to challenge for the senior women's title in Brussels, even though she is still young enough to defend the junior title she won in Lausanne last March. Yesterday, like Sihine, the Ethiopian judged her race to perfection, sprinting clear of the Ethiopian-born Turk Elvan Abeylegesse with 200 metres remaining. She crossed the line in 21min 1sec, celebrating her first victory over Tulu, who finished fifth in 21:30. At 31, Tulu has won two Olympic 10,000m titles, one World Championship 10,000m crown and three world cross-country championships. She is Dibaba's cousin and training partner. "We train together in Addis Ababa," Tulu said. "She will be a bigger star than me."
Dibaba certainly has stellar quality. Her 5,000m victory in Paris last summer made her the youngest world champion in history. She is aiming to shine indoors and out before the Olympic track season gets underway. She aims to contest the 5,000m at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in March and the World Cross- Country Championships in Brussels later the same month - a distance-running queen of industry, evidently.
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