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Africans showcase the continent’s athletic supremacy at the World Cross-Country Championships

IF you want to get a sense of the level to which African runners dominate distance running right now, look no further than the World Athletics Cross Country Championships, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.

From Kenya to South Africa, Uganda to Ethiopia, different cross-country athletes from the continent recorded remarkable performances.

Formerly known as the International Cross Country Championships, the annual event is the most important competition in international cross-country running. This year’s edition was held in Belgrade on March 30.

East African athletes continued their dominance in international cross-country, claiming all team and individual medals, bar one. Apart from Great Britain’s bronze medal in the mixed relay, athletes from Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia went home with all the medals and prize money on offer at the championship.

Competition favourites Jacob Chelimo of Uganda and Kenyan Beatrice Chebet lived up to their pre-championship billing, successfully defending their senior titles. Samuel Kibathi of Kenya and Ethiopian Marta Alemayo have been marked as stars of future distance running following their impressive wins in the respective Junior championship events.

The real measure of East Africans’ dominance was, however, the fact that Spanish athlete Aaron Las Heras was the first athlete from a country other than Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea to finish in the men’s senior race, placing 17th overall, while French athlete Mehdi Frere, who narrowly edged South African Bennet Seloyi out of a top twenty finish, was the only other non-African in the top twenty.

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Following the past two years where the more gradient- and terrain-challenging championship courses in Denmark and Australia evoked the origins of the sport, the Serbian track (the same used at the 2013 European Championships) reverted to the ‘flat and fast’ formula that has prevailed for most of the century.

Injuries to leading South Africans Kabelo Mulaudzi and Tayla Kavanagh during their respective races left their teams several places adrift of what might have been. In particular, South African cross-country champion Mulaudzi’s hamstring injury cost the team up to 45 points and a plausible 4th behind Ethiopia.

“It was a good championship and the team did quite well,” team leader and ASA Board Member Jakes Jacobs commented.

“There are always many factors at play and you can’t predict a ‘DNF’. Unfortunately, two of our favourites could not make it to the finish … Our champion Kabelo suffered a hamstring injury while Tayla suffered heat exhaustion.”

“But on the other hand, Kyla Jacobs had a fantastic race, while Bennett Seloyi also excelled as our first man home. Our Under 20 men’s team did really well to place fifth in the team contest. These are our stars of the future,” he added.

Nadeel Wildschutt, brother of record-breaking track star, Adriaan, made good use of his unexpected call-up, finishing third of six South Africans (40th overall) in the men’s senior race over 10km, behind Seloyi (21st) and Andries Sesedi (33rd).

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“This was my first time representing South Africa at the World Cross Country Championships,” said the athlete from the Western Cape town of Ceres, Wildschutt.

“For me personally, the heat worked in our favour. Although the course seemed flat, it was adapted with muddy sections, artificial hills and other obstacles,” he revealed after the race.

Western Cape athlete Jacobs ran a perfectly timed race, starting cautiously and finishing strongly to overhaul her fast-starting teammates, Glenrose Xaba and Cacisile Sosibo, on the final lap of the women’s senior 10km race.

“The course was less technical and was faster and flatter than last year,” said Jacobs. “But it was so challenging in its own way with the Africans going out brutally fast! And it was not just the pace which was hot – the temperature rose to 28 degrees !”

Other great performances included Central Gauteng athlete, Rico Leijenaar (23rd), who led teammates Zenzile Pheko (25th) and Musawenkosi Mnisi (27th) across the line in the Junior race over 8 km to spearhead South Africa’s strong fifth position behind the East Africans.

By STEPHEN GRANGER, SPNA

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