Feature26 Mar 2024

Thirty years since Chepngeno’s landmark world cross country victory


Eventual winner Hellen Chepngeno (222) at the 1994 World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)

As the runners took to the start line for the senior women’s race at the 22nd World Athletics Cross Country Championships on the outskirts of Budapest on the wet, windswept afternoon of 26 March 1994, none of the 148 entrants stood out as a clear favourite.

With just 90 seconds on the clock, it was effectively an open-and-shut case.

At that point, Helen Chepngeno took the lead. She was never to relinquish it over the remaining course of the 6.2km race.

The tall figure with the number 222 pinned to her Kenyan vest proceeded to stand head and shoulders above a field that included defending champion Albertina Dias of Portugal, two-time winner Zola Pieterse of South Africa and Ireland’s Catherina McKiernan, runner up in the previous two years.

Pieterse fleetingly led the initial charge from the start line but the one-time wunderkind from Bloemfontein – who took the title in Lisbon in 1985 and retained it in Neuchatel a year later – eventually wound up seventh, one place and one second behind her South African teammate Elana Meyer.

In Barcelona two years previously, Meyer claimed Olympic 10,000m silver behind Derartu Tulu, before embarking on a hugely symbolic lap of honour hand in hand with her Ethiopian rival, the first black African woman to strike Olympic gold.

In the wind and rain of Budapest, Chepngeno secured a historic success of her own.

In Antwerp in 1991, Tulu became the first black African woman to earn a senior individual medal at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships – a silver, three seconds behind Lynn Jennings of the USA.

Back down the field in 46th place in the Belgian city celebrated for its diamonds, Chepngeno made a less than sparkling international debut that day, finishing 74 seconds behind Tulu.

The big one

In Hungary’s capital city, she produced a gem of a performance, emerging as the first African woman to claim a senior individual world cross-country crown.

Tall and strong in physique, Chepngeno’s smooth, powerful stride took her relentlessly clear of the opposition over the three laps of the racecourse.

“This girl’s working hard into the headwind and she’s doing a great job of breaking away,” said Steve Ovett on the TV commentary. “She looks very comfortable out there.

“She’s such a lovely runner, Chepngeno. She’s got such a long stride and a deceptively relaxed rhythm.

“She really has taken the race by the scruff of the neck.”

Indeed, she had. By halfway, Chepngeno was some 40 metres clear of Dias.

The defending champion tried desperately to claw back the lost ground on the final lap but faded to seventh. McKiernan came through for her third successive silver medal – seven seconds behind the imperious Chepngeno.

“This is the big one for us,” proclaimed Mike Kosgei, head coach of the Kenyan team.

Eventual winner Hellen Chepngeno (222) at the 1994 World Cross Country Championships

Eventual winner Hellen Chepngeno (222) at the 1994 World Cross Country Championships (© Getty Images)

Opening the floodgates

Kenyans captured all four individual titles in Budapest – all long-course events, four years before the introduction of short-course races. William Sigei won the senior men’s 12km, Phillip Mosima the U20 men’s 8km and Sally Barsosio the U20 women’s 4.3km.

Kenya won three of the team titles, too, but it was the individual triumph in the event in which they placed third – behind Portugal and Ethiopia – that was ‘the big one’ for them.

Chepngeno’s landmark victory opened the floodgates for a period of East African domination that has yet to abate in the senior women’s long course race.

Five of the next six winners were Ethiopian, Tulu finally succeeding in Durham in 1995 and again in Turin in 1997 and in Vilamoura in 2000.

It took until 2009 for a Kenyan woman to secure the coveted prize again but Florence Kiplagat’s victory in Amman started a run of eight successive wins that has yet to be halted, ahead of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships Belgrade 24 this coming Saturday (30).

In all, since Chepngeno’s Budapest breakthrough, there have been nine Kenyan winners of the senior women’s long course race – and nine Ethiopian, the most recent of those Tirunesh Dibaba in Edinburgh in 2008.

Dogged by injuries

Unlike Tulu and her niece Dibaba, a three-time Olympic gold medallist and 10-time world champion on all surfaces, Chepngeno never managed to translate the world-beating form she showed in the mud of Budapest on to the track.

She only spent one season on what was then the Grand Prix circuit, in the European summer of 1993.

Her best performance on the track was probably her seventh-place finish in the Weltklasse 3000m in Zurich, in which she clocked a PB of 8:43.86. She was also seventh over the same distance at the Grand Prix Final at Crystal Palace, clocking 8:58.27.

Knee and ankle injuries dogged Chepngeno after her world cross country win. An unmarried mother with a four-year-old son, she was also hugely dependent on her job as a corporal in the Kenyan Prisons Service.

One of 10 children, Chepngeno was raised at Kitapen, a small village in Bomet County in the Rift Valley. She used to run to and from school – and then to the local shop and back for messages.

“I wanted to surprise my parents,” she said. “I ran very fast and returned quickly.”

After trying high jumping and javelin throwing with little success, Chepngeno drew on her natural speed to make the Kenyan team for the 1991 World Cross Country Championships in Antwerp.

The disappointment of that 46th-place finish was eased by an encouraging improvement to 15th position in the senior women’s race in the snow of Boston in 1992.

It was failure to earn world cross selection in 1993, though, that proved to be the springboard for success in 1994.

The secret of success

“It taught me a big lesson,” Chepngeno reflected. “Not to take things for granted and assume I would be in the team.

“I was so angry, I trained like a donkey to make sure it didn’t happen again in 1994. I was not going to leave anything to chance.”

Even after securing her place on the team, as runner-up at the Kenyan trials, she stepped up her efforts at the squad’s preparation camp in Embu.

“I trained with the men there, since my goal was to win a global medal,” Chepngeno recalled. “I would wake up early and do some extra training first on my own.

“That was my secret. I never let anybody know.”

It proved to be the secret to a hugely significant success.

Simon Turnbull for World Athletics Heritage

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