Nibret Melak in action at the Cinque Mulini (© Giancarlo Colombo)
Ethiopia’s Nibret Melak will be looking to retain his title at the 90th milestone edition of the Cinque Mulini in San Vittore Olona – the 11th Gold level meeting of this season’s World Athletics Cross Country Tour – on Sunday (30).
Melak made a major breakthrough in March 2021 during the top two Italian cross country races when he finished second at the Campaccio in San Giorgio su Legnano behind Jacob Kiplimo and went on to win the Cinque Mulini one week later, beating Leonard Bett. The 22-year-old Ethiopian runner enjoyed a successful track season, setting a 5000m PB of 12:54.22 at the Hengelo Continental Tour Gold meeting. Last autumn he achieved two top-three spots in the World Athletics Cross Country Tour, finishing third at the Cross de Italica in Santiponce near Seville and second in Venta de Banos.
Melak will take on his younger compatriot Tadese Worku, who won the gold medal in the 3000m and silver in the 5000m at the World Athletics U20 Championships in Nairobi last August. Two years ago Worku was outsprinted by Leonard Bett in the final lap of the Cinque Mulini and had to settle for second place. This season the 20-year-old finished second at the Cross de Italica in Seville last November and won the Boclassic 10km road race on 31 December.
Worku, who came to the fore in the U20 race at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Aarhus in 2019, clocked 26:56 in the 10km road race in Herzogenaurach last October.
Another Ethiopian rising star in the line-up is Bikila Tadese Takele, who won the silver medal in 3000m steeplechase at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi. Takele improved his PB to 8:09.37 in Hengelo and came close to that time a few days later, when he finished second in 8:10.56 in the Diamond League meeting in Florence.
The Ethiopian athletes will face stiff opposition from 20-year-old Ugandan runner Oscar Chelimo, who won the bronze medal at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018 and finished third in the individual race and second in the team competition at the 2019 World Cross Country Championships.
Chelimo, who is the younger brother of Jacob Kiplimo, won the Boclassic race in Bolzano in 2020 and finished fourth in last year’s edition of the Cinque Mulini. On the track, Chelimo took fifth place in the 5000m at the 2019 African Games in the 5000m in Rabat and crossed the finish line seventh over the same distance at the World U20 Championships in Tampere in 2018. Uganda will be also represented by Samuel Kibet, who won the silver medal at the African U20 Championships in Abidjan in 2019.
The Cinque Mulini has always lived up to its tradition of serving as a springboard for future athletics stars, who continued their careers by winning global medals at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. The rising stars to watch this year are Kenyan runners Levy Kibet, who won the bronze medal in the 5000m at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi, and 17-year-old Daniel Kinyanjui, who finished second in the Kenyan World U20 Trials in Nairobi in the 3000m. Also Eritrean runner Habtom Samuel, who finished third in the 3000m at the 2021 World U20 Championships. Eritrea has not won the men’s race at the Cinque Mulini since Zersenay Tadese’s triumph in 2008.
The Italian challenge is led by Ahmed Abdelwahed, who clocked the fourth fastest national time in the 3000m steeplechase when clocking 8:12.04 at the Golden Gala in Florence last June, and twin brothers Ala Zoghlami (ninth in the Olympic final in the 3000m steeplechase in 8:18.50 after improving his PB to 8:14.06 in the heats) and Osama Zoghlami, who set his 3000m steeplechase PB by clocking 8:14.29 at the Golden Gala in Florence.
The Italian contingent is rounded out by Sergiy Polikarpenko, who won the European U20 silver medal in the 10,000m in Grosseto in 2017, and Ahmed Ouhda, who recently set his PB on the road clocking 28:41 at the Valencia 10km Ibercaja race on 9 January.
Gateri and Yego go head-to-head
The women’s race will feature a re-match of the 3000m final at last August’s World U20 Championships in Nairobi, where Teresiah Muthoni Gateri from Kenya won the gold medal ahead of her compatriot Zenah Jemutai Yego. Gateri and Yego will be aiming to score the first Kenyan women's race win in San Vittore Olona since 2016 when Faith Kipyegon triumphed a few months before winning the first of her two consecutive Olympic 1500m gold medals.
Kenya’s Lucy Mawia Muli will be gunning for her third top-three spot in the current World Athletics Cross Country Tour after finishing first in Soria and second in Alcobendas.
Nadia Battocletti leads a strong Italian contingent. The daughter of former distance runner Giuliano Battocletti won two European U23 gold medals in the 5000m in Tallin last July and in cross country in Fingal-Dublin last December. During a successful 2021 season the 21-year-old Italian star finished seventh in the 5000m at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 14:46.29, just two seconds shy of Roberta Brunet’s national record. In her most recent races Battocletti finished third at the Boclassic 5km race in Bolzano on 31 December and sixth at the Campaccio Cross Country on 6 January.
Battocletti will renew her rivalry with Slovenia’s Klara Lukan, who won the European U23 silver medals behind the Italian runner in Tallin and Dublin. Lukan won the Milano Cross Country Challenge last December and was beaten by Battocletti by a close margin at the Campaccio.
The Italian line-up also features 10,000m European U23 silver medallist Anna Arnaudo, Michela Moretton and Giovanna Selva, who won the European U23 team gold with Battocletti in Dublin, plus Rebecca Lonedo, Martina Merlo and twin sisters Federica and Giulia Zanne.
The field is rounded out by Ruanda’s Clementine Mukandanga, who won the Reggio Emilia marathon in 2:30:16 last December.
The Cinque Mulini has been held every year since 1933, even during the Second World War. Back in the 1930s the course passed through five mills along the Olona river. The race has had to adapt over time and it is now held on a two-kilometre loop which passes through the Cozzi and Meraviglia mills.
A total of 38 Olympic champions have competed in the 90-year history of the Cinque Mulini, which was honoured with a World Athletics Heritage Plaque in 2019. The list of Olympic champions who have taken part in the popular Italian race includes Billy Mills, Kipchoge Keino, Lasse Viren, Frank Shorter, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Miruts Yifter, Said Aouita, Alberto Cova (the last Italian winner in San Vittore Olona in 1986), Gelindo Bordin, Kenenisa Bekele, Stefano Baldini, Eliud Kipchoge, Selemon Barega, Soufiane El Bakkali, Lyudmila Bragina, Maricica Puica, Gabriella Dorio, Derartu Tulu and Faith Kipyegon. Late Norwegian legend Grete Waitz, who won six Cinque Mulini titles, called the Cinque Mulini the best cross country competition in the world.
Diego Sampaolo for World Athletics