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Will Kenya maintain dominance at 2024 World Cross Country?

 Hellen Obiri of Laikipia Airbase leads women 10km race duirng the 2023 KDF Cross Country championships at the Langata Sports Complex in Nairobi on January 6, 2023. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

Kenya’s medal haul at the World Cross Country championships is undoubtedly unrivalled.

The country’s athletes, both seniors and juniors have tactically maneuvered the tough courses characterised by artificial hills, mud barriers, and sharp bends, using it as their stepping stones to global showdowns.

At the 2023 World cross country championships in Bathurst, Australia, Kenya reclaimed its position as the world’s top nation in the event.

Its top guns bagged the overall gold medal in February, making the country number one after losing the team title to neighbours Ethiopia (from 2013 to 2017) and Uganda in 2019.

A look at the previous World Cross Country competitions pictures a nation that has basked in pure glory.

Winning the overall title, a record 25 times since 1986, the men’s senior team tops the world. The women’s team has topped the charts 13 times.

In 2024, when the stars line up at the park of Friendship in Belgrade, Serbia on March 30, Kenya will unquestionably be the centre of attraction.

The country will be defending its team title and her traditional rivals are seeking to regain their footing.

 Mercy Cherono competes in the 10km women race during AK National Cross Country championship at Kenya Prisons Training School in Ruiru, Kiambu county on January 21, 2023. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

For an uninterrupted 18 editions from 1986 to 2003, other countries fell by the wayside as Kenya’s men took the top honours.

Kenya was back to its winning ways in 2006 and 2007 before Ethiopian men made a comeback, ruling the top spots at the World Cross Country Championships from 2013 to 2017. Then in 2019, Uganda surprised the world, before Kenya unleashed its arsenal to win in 2023.

The question is, who will lead the onslaught to retain the overall title in Belgrade?

Athletics Kenya said cross country weekend series would offer the federation an opportunity to spot the best talents.

"We encourage athletes from all over the country to plan to participate in these events as preparations for the season commence," the federation said in statements at the beginning of the 2023-2024 season.

According to AK, the cross country meetings will also be used to scout for young talents for the World Under-20 championships, also happening in 2024.

 Kenya's Beatrice Chebet after winning this year's women's 10km race at the World Athletics cross country championships in Bathurst, Australia. [Xinhua]

On an individual level, Kenyan athletes have dominated the world cross country stage.

From world record holders Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon (1500m and Mile) and Beatrice Chepkoech, to former best mark setters such as marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge and two-time New York City Marathon winner Geoffrey Kamworor and three-time Valencia Half Marathon champion Kibiwott Kandie, cross country continues to produce successful athletes.

Chepkoech was in the mixed relays team that delivered gold medal at the 2017 World Cross Country championships in Kampala.

Two-time Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge announced his journey to the big athletics stage after bagging gold in the junior race at the 2003 World Cross Country championships in Lausanne.

Geoffrey Kamworor, who is among the country’s most decorated cross country stars, is hopeful of a successful 2024.

Kamworor has three individual cross country titles, and remains among the top achievers in cross country.

John Ngugi laid Kenya’s cross country marker by winning the title in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1999. He also took the crown in 1992.

Afterwards, the likes of Paul Tergat (1995-1999) and Kamworor (2015 and 2017) took over.

The foundation of the men’s junior categories was laid by 1991 World 1500m silver medallist Wilfred Kirochi as well as the first Kenyan man to win in the category in 1985, Kipkemboi Kimeli.

You can’t talk about an athlete such as world 5000m silver and bronze medallist Beatrice Chebet without mentioning cross country racing.

Chebet is the reigning women’s World Cross Country champion after her dramatic cruise to victory in Bathurst, Australia in March.

Emerging talents, for instance World 10,000m silver medallist Daniel Ebenyo, Olympian Nicholas Kipkorir Kimeli and Sebastian Sawe credit cross country for their tactical racing on the track and road racing to cross country.

In February this year, Faith Chepngetich fired a warning shot when she powered to victory at the senior women’s 10km during the Sirikwa Classic World Cross Country Tour gold meeting at the Lobo Village in Eldoret.

Chepngetich was announcing her measured transition to the long distances as she started the season.

Observers say Chepngetich might line up in Belgrade 2024 as she lays ground for long distance racing after 2024 Paris Olympics.

"I had some fears at first because I had not run 10km in cross country since 2017 in Kampala. Many of my fans were expecting a good performance and I was lucky to win. I can say it is my first major win this year and also my first in 10km,” said Chepngetich.

The Athletics Kenya Cross Country weekend meets that mark the start of the calendar of events have been producers of thrilling contests.

Big shots compete to test their strength ahead of major races.

 Ruth Chepng’etich competes in the 10km women race during AK National Cross Country championship at Kenya Prisons Training School in Ruiru, Kiambu county on January 21, 2023. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

Daniel Simiu, a Commonwealth Games 10,000m silver medallist, for example, defeated Kandie, the former World Half Marathon record holder at the fourth leg of the Cross Country Weekend Series held in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County last year.

Kenyan women, like their men counterparts, have dominated podium spots at the World Cross Country championships.

Beatrice Chebet cruised to a dramatic victory in Bathurst, overpowering pre-race favourite, Ethiopian Letesnbet Gidey.

Chebet had won the junior title in the 2019 edition before transiting to the seniors in style this year.

It will be one of the exciting races of 2024 if she lines up in Belgrade, to defend her title.

Women athletes such as Irene Cheptai, the late Agnes Tirop and Hellen Obiri are among stars with World Cross Country titles.

Lydia Cheromei took the junior title in 1991. Compatriots such as Gladys Ondeyo (1993), Sally Barsosio (1994), and Rose Kosgei (1997) among others, followed in her footsteps.

Ahead of the 2024 World Cross Country contest, there will be the Sirikwa Classic Cross Country Tour in Eldoret on February 3.

Athletes will also be eying glory at the National Cross Country Championships set for February 24.

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