The pride of Bedford and County Athletics Club was conspicuously absent from the women's long-course race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships yesterday. Paula Radcliffe was in Limerick, having treatment for the strained hamstring that forced her withdrawal from the field for the 8km event in the Parc de Laeken, in the shadow of the giant Atomium. The British team still managed to get on the podium, though - as bronze medal winners behind Ethiopia and Kenya. And a member of Thames Hare and Hounds emerged with the individual gold from the Brussels mud.
Benita Johnson made her fairly stunning advance, scuppering the expected East African stranglehold, in the green and gold of Australia. The 24-year-old hails from Mackay, the Queensland town where Cathy Freeman was born and raised, but she spends much of her time in London these days. She bought a house at Hampton Wick last year and she can be found training in Bushey Park and at Kingston Stadium - in the company of Sonia O'Sullivan, the Olympic 5,000m silver medallist.
It was a triumph partly forged in Britain as Johnson left her rivals floundering in her wake on the hilly mud-covered course. It was one of the greatest upsets in the 100-year history of the World Cross Country Championships and its forerunner, the International Cross Country, although Johnson did show a significant sign of progress when taking the bronze medal behind Radcliffe and Berhane Adere in the World Half-Marathon Championships in Vilamoura, Portugal, last October. It was also a more emphatic victory than Radcliffe managed in the mud of Ostend in 2001 and on the firm going at Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin the following year. Johnson, who relieved Radcliffe of her course record in the South of England six-stage road relay championships last year, struck on the steep incline at the start of the final circuit. She crossed the finish line 12 seconds clear of Ejegayehu Dibaba, with another Ethiopian, defending champion Worknesh Kidane, a further five seconds adrift in third place.
"Paula has really shown the way for the rest of the world against the Africans," Johnson said, celebrating her country's first ever medal in the World Cross Country Championships. "She's a fantastic role model. The Africans aren't just fantastically talented; they train remarkably hard. You've got to train as hard as they do and also believe that you can beat them. I've got a fantastic training group in London. Sonia O'Sullivan helps me out a lot. We can both get gold medals in our respective events at the Olympics. I'll be going for the 10,000m in Athens. I have the marathon in mind, but not just yet." On the strength of the form Johnson displayed yesterday, that will come as something of a relief to Radcliffe. She intends to concentrate on the marathon in the Greek capital. As for Johnson, it remains to be seen whether she will have the mental or physical strength left to concentrate on the 4km short-course race this afternoon after a night of celebration.
"We'll see how she feels tomorrow," her coach, Nic Bideau, said. Only one runner has ever completed the women's double at the World Cross Country Championships: O'Sullivan, Johnson's training partner and Bideau's common-law wife.
Bideau and O'Sullivan live with their two children in Teddington. Johnson spends most of the European spring and summer-time based nearby at Hampton Wick. "London's an ideal place for Benita to train," Bideau said. "She's got Bushey Park and Kingston Stadium and she's got Sonia and the rest of the group to train with. She wouldn't qualify to represent Britain, though. She's just a British house-owner." By a neat twist of irony, the British women's team clinched third place with the help of a native Australian who has settled in Surrey. Natalie Harvey was an Aussie team-mate of Johnson until two years ago and had she been running in the green and gold yesterday her old homeland would have taken the bronze team medals ahead of Britain. As it was, she finished 28th on her debut for Britain, the fourth and final points scorer, behind Kathy Butler (11th), Liz Yelling (13th) and Louise Damen (22nd), with Hayley Yelling providing excellent back-up in 29th place.
Three of the four counters in the Qatari team that took second place behind Ethiopia in the men's short-course race were Africans who switched allegiance for money last summer. Individually, the 4km event proved to be a predictable stroll in Laeken Park for Kenenisa Bekele, a bona fide Ethiopian. Bekele also starts the clear favourite for the 12km men's long course this afternoon. It would be his third successive world cross country double - at the age of 21.
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