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Series31 Jan 2023

50 years of the World Cross: the rise of Africa


Bekele Debele wins the senior men's race at the 1983 World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)

1973-1982 | 1983-1992 | 1993-2002 2003-2011

Kenya’s arrival as a dominant cross country force – in time, the most dominant in the 50-year history of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships – came in 1986 in Neuchatel, the capital of Switzerland’s watch industry.

It was their sixth appearance in the championships and in the senior men’s race they had yet to strike individual or collective gold. The Kenyans had gained team bronze on two occasions, on their debut in Madrid in 1981, and at Gateshead in 1983. And, on the individual front, Some Muge had finished third in 1983 and Paul Kipkoech second in 1985.

In the showpiece senior men’s race, however, the nation that changed the face of distance running on the track in the 1960s arrived in Neuchatel in 1986 still in search of a Midas touch – unlike their East African neighbours.

Ethiopia had stolen a march on them on the global cross country stage.

The Ethiopians also made their first appearance in the Spanish capital in 1981, sweeping to an emphatic team victory despite their six counters all miscounting the laps and sprinting for the line with one circuit still remaining. They arrived in Switzerland on a roll of five successive team successes.

The Ethiopians had also claimed the coveted individual senior men’s team crown twice: courtesy of Mohammed Kedir in Rome in 1982 and the 20-year-old Bekele Debele in a blanket finish with Portugal’s Carlos Lopes and Muge in Gateshead in 1983, all three medallists clocking the same time.

Bekele Debele at the 1983 World Cross

Bekele Debele at the 1983 World Cross (© Getty Images)

In Neuchatel, at the Swiss cross country skiing centre, the power of global cross country running was to lock into the axis of an enduring East African rivalry, tilting suddenly and dramatically in Kenya’s favour.

The senior men’s 12km race attracted 337 participants from 49 countries, making it, to date, the largest ever single event in the 50 years of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships.

Kenyans finished first and third, John Ngugi securing the first of his five individual titles ahead of Ethiopian marathon specialist Abebe Mekonnen, with fellow Kenyan Joseph Kiptum in third.

In all, Kenya had five men in the top eight, with Kipkoech, the future world 10,000m champion, fifth, Kipsubai Koskei seventh and Muge eighth. The red-vested tide overwhelmed the defending team championships.

With Andrew Masai the sixth counter in 21st place, the Kenyan tally of 45 points secured the title with a record low score. Ethiopia had just two men in the top 10: Mekonnen (second) and Debele (fourth). They finished distant runners up with 119 points.

And so the great East African rivalry for world cross country supremacy was joined in earnest.

Kenya's Some Muge leads the senior men's race at the 1986 World Cross Country Championships

Kenya's Some Muge leads the senior men's race at the 1986 World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)

In individual terms, it was the first time that all three medals in the senior men’s race had been won by Kenyans and Ethiopians. That has happened a further 12 times since in the senior men’s long race, including three Kenyan medal sweeps (in 1988, 1996 and 1997) and one for Ethiopia (in 2004).

In 12 of the 14 senior men’s long course races between 1986 and 1999, the individual title was won by a Kenyan. Eleven of the 14 silver medals went to Kenyans too.

On a broader scope, the big breakthrough in Neuchatel set in motion the longest winning team streak in the history of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships.

Kenya took the team prize in the senior men’s long course race for 18 successive years, a stranglehold that stretched all the way from 1986 to 2003.

Their most dominant performance in the race also came in the 1980s, at the 1988 championships in Auckland. For the first time, African runners filled the top 10. Only Mekonnen in fifth place prevented a Kenyan sweep of the first nine positions at Ellerslie Racecourse.

The Kenyan near-monopoly read: 1 Ngugi, 2 Kipkoech, 3 Koskei, 4 Boniface Merande; 6 Moses Tanui, 7 Kiptum, 8 Kip Rono, 9 Muge.

The team title was retained with a record low 23 points, Ethiopia finishing second with 103.

Across all three races in Auckland, Kenya won a record seven medals. In the 50 years of the World Cross Country Championships, they stand top of the medal chart with 324, followed by Ethiopia with 275 and the USA with 63.

They have also won the most team golds (85) and stand a close second to Ethiopia in terms of team medals of any colour (134-136).

Since their winning run in the team section of the senior men’s race was ended by Ethiopia in 2004, Kenya has gained six more golds (successively from 2006 to 2011) and Ethiopia five.

Of course, at the most recent championships, in Aarhus in 2019, the Kenyan-Ethiopian stranglehold stretching back to 1981 was broken by the emergence of a new East African force in Uganda. Kenya took silver and Ethiopia bronze.

So, intriguingly, the World Cross Country Championships enters its second half century with the tide in the senior men’s long race potentially turning once again. The rise of Uganda, however, is a story for another day’s feature in this series.

Tulu leads the way

The Kenyan-Ethiopian domination of the senior women’s long course race began towards the end of the second decade of the championships: in Antwerp in 1991.

The year before, in Aix-les-Bains, Ethiopia made the senior women’s rostrum for the first time, finishing second to the Soviet Union in the team race. In Antwerp, they slugged out a fierce battle with Kenya that was decided by the cross country equivalent of countback.

Derartu Tulu, Lynn Jennings and Liz McColgan on the podium at the 1991 World Cross

Derartu Tulu, Lynn Jennings and Liz McColgan on the podium at the 1991 World Cross (© Getty Images)

Ethiopia had their first individual senior women’s medallist in Deratu Tulu, the future Olympic 10,000m champion finishing runner-up to Lynn Jennings of the USA. They also had Luchia Yisak in fourth, but both countries had all four of their counters inside the top 18 and both scored 36 points.

Kenya took gold, courtesy of the higher-placed fourth counter – Pauline Konga in 15th, against Merima Denboba in 18th. It was the start of a rivalry that remains ongoing.

Since 1991, with the exception of Portugal’s success in 1994, all of the senior women’s long course team titles have been won by Kenya or Ethiopia. Heading into the 2023 championships at Bathurst, the score stands poised at Kenya 12-Ethiopia 12.

Susan Sirma leads the senior women's race at the 1991 World Cross with Derartu Tulu tucked behind

Susan Sirma leads the senior women's race at the 1991 World Cross with Derartu Tulu tucked behind (© Getty Images)

Individually, there have been eight wins by Kenyans and nine by Ethiopians. Helen Chepengeno was the first Kenyan winner, in 1994, and Tulu the first Ethiopian a year later.

In the last eight editions of the championships, the two nations have won every individual medal bar one of the senior women’s long course race. Shalane Flanagan of the US took bronze behind the Kenyan duo Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai in 2011.

Since Australian Benita Johnson’s 2004 triumph in Brussels, there has been just one individual champion wearing neither a Kenyan nor Ethiopian vest.

And, of course, Lornah Kiplagat, who prevailed in the orange of the Netherlands in 2007, was born and raised in Kenya.

Second decade of World Cross action

1983 Gateshead, UK

Eight days past his 20th birthday, the unheralded Ethiopian Bekele Debele became the youngest senior men’s winner, edging out Portugal’s Carlos Lopes and Kenya’s Some Muge in a blanket sprint finish, all three medallists clocking the same time. Norwegian marathon queen Grete Waitz claimed a record fifth victory in the women’s race.

1984 Meadowlands, New Jersey, USA

Eight years after his first win, 37-year-old Carlos Lopes claimed his second senior men’s title, ahead of England’s Tim Hutchings and Wales’ Steve Jones. Waitz had to settle for third in the women’s race, behind 1982 champion Maricica Puica of Romania and Galina Zakharova of the Soviet Union.

1985 Lisbon, Portugal

At 38 years 34 days, Lopes became the oldest senior men’s winner, finishing four seconds clear of Kenya’s Paul Kipkoech to complete a hat-trick of titles in his home city. At 18 years 302 days, England’s South African-born Zola Budd became the youngest senior women’s winner.

1986 Neuchatel, Switzerland

The barefoot Budd retained the women’s crown, finishing 100 metres clear of US runner Lynn Jennings. Kenya captured the men’s team prize from Ethiopia for the first time, John Ngugi securing the first of five individual wins.

1987 Warsaw, Poland

France’s Annette Sergent overhauled Scot Liz Lynch and the multiple-world-record-holding Norwegian Ingrid Kristansen to win the women’s race. Ngugi and Kipkoech finished one and two for Kenya in the senior men’s event.

1988 Auckland, New Zealand

At the ninth attempt, Kristiansen took the senior women’s crown, 41 seconds clear of Wales’ Angela Tooby, aunt of future world 1500m champion Jake Wightman. Ngugi led a Kenyan 1-2-3-4 in the senior men’s race.

1989 Stavanger, Norway

Swede Malin Ewerlof won the inaugural junior women’s race, Kenya lifting the team prize. Sergent gained her second senior women’s title, while Ngugi beat Hutchings to win his fourth senior men’s crown.

1990 Aix-les-Bains, France

Morocco’s Khalid Skah won the senior men’s title ahead of Kenya’s Moses Tanui. Jennings opened her winning run in the senior women’s race.

1991 Antwerp, Belgium

As you were, Skah and Tanui again finishing one and two in the senior men’s race and Jennings retaining the senior women’s title ahead of Ethiopia’s Deratu Tulu.

1992 Boston, USA

Jennings completed her hat-trick on snow-covered home ground, pipping Ireland’s Caterina McKiernan by two seconds. Ngugi secured his fifth title, while in the junior races Britain’s Paula Radcliffe struck gold and Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia took silver behind Kenya’s Ismael Kirui.

Simon Turnbull for World Athletics Heritage

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