A bacterial infection has deprived today's View From Great North Cross Country race of one reigning world cross country champion in the form of Paula Radcliffe, but – fingers crossed – another stands ready to take prime billing in an event which the BBC is committed to screening for 80 minutes.
While Radcliffe attracted most of the British attention in retaining her world title in Dublin last March, her exploits masked an equally outstanding performance from a 19-year-old Ethiopian, Kenenisa Bekele, who won both the short and long versions of the title in his first year as a senior.
Bekele will be defending the men's 9.4km title at Newcastle Exhibition Park, a picturesque venue in the shadow of Newcastle United's football ground. But while the distance remains the same, the conditions are likely to be far worse following the recent downpours.
"It's a mud bath now,'' said the race organiser, Peter Elliott, the former Olympic silver medalist at 1,500m. "So I would imagine when the programme gets into full swing the conditions for the world-class performers who are here will be awesome.''
Elliott, perhaps, should have said awful. But it will certainly take awesome application to overcome them, and Bekele, having missed the best part of last summer with an ankle injury, appears ready to rise to the challenge. "I don't mind running in the mud,'' he maintained yesterday morning after glimpsing a few snowflakes from the window of his hotel. He proved his contention three days before Christmas by winning a cross country race in Brussels in atrociously slippy conditions, finishing 74 seconds clear of Russia's European cross country champion Sergei Lebid on a course alongside the Heysel Stadium.
Just as any promising British female distance runner now has to put up with being compared to Radcliffe, Bekele has encountered a similar problem now the running career of his illustrious compatriot Haile Gebrselassie is entering its final lap. In winning the world cross title, Bekele has already achieved something that the double Olympic champion never managed, but, now 20, he is understandably wary of being seen as the great man's successor.
The first athlete to do the men's world cross double since the event adopted two races in 1998, he was expected to produce great things on the track. But an Achilles tendon injury sustained at the Leopardstown Racecourse forced him to cut his summer season short after a couple of races and he spent several months following traditional healing methods in his homeland.
Now, though, he believes he is back to his best. "Brussels was very muddy and there were no problems for my ankle,'' he said. "It is new.'' The new ankle will be rigorously tested, however, by the presence of two outstanding Kenyans. The first is Paul Kosgei, who won this event two years ago and who, at the Great North Run last October, became the first man to run a half marathon in under an hour on British soil.
Elliott, however, believes Ethiopia's strongest challenge will come from Sammy Kipketer, the 21-year-old Commonwealth 5,000m champion who finished top of the world 5,000m and 10,000m rankings last season. "He and Bekele are both comparatively young men, but already brilliant performers,'' Elliott said. "It should be a special race.''
In the 4km race, Britain will look to the Commonwealth 1,500m champion Michael East and the former European indoor 3,000m champion John Mayock.
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