Series23 Mar 2019

Fab five: World Cross dramatic moments


Fab five: World Cross dramatic moments (© Getty Images / Mark Shearman)

The IAAF World Cross Country Championships has served up many cherished memories of pure sporting theatre throughout its rich history.


The Ethiopians in a muddle

Madrid, 1981

The senior men's race at the 1981 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Madrid


Packing well at the front, a group of Ethiopian athletes, decked in their familiar green vests, made what appeared to be their victory dash for the finish-line in the senior men’s race. However, this was not to be the day of Ethiopian individual success as the team had committed an almighty miscalculation – they had timed their winning bid a lap too early.

Naturally sapped of both physical and mental energy, the group could not sustain their dominance as USA’s Craig Virgin successfully defended his title. Despite the mix up, Ethiopia’s Mohamed Kedir plugged on gamely to earn the consolation of individual silver while the East African nation, somewhat miraculously, came away with the team title by virtue of providing five of the first 15 finishers.

Bekele's streak ends in dramatic fashion

Mombasa, 2007

As the most successful runner in World Cross history, once Kenenisa Bekele stretched out to a 20-metre lead from Zersenay Tadese on the penultimate lap it appeared inevitable the lithe Ethiopian would secure an unprecedented sixth successive senior men’s title.

Yet no one could predict what followed. Competing in temperatures of 33c and 73% humidity, Bekele suddenly slowed on the narrow, twisting route of the Mombasa Golf Course.

It was the beginning of the end. Eritrea’s Tadese first caught and quickly passed the fading Ethiopian, who with 800 metres remaining withdrew from the race shaking his head.

Tadese took the win – to the delight of the Kenyan home crowd – but Bekele was the story. The Ethiopian had to wait a further 12 months to add his record-breaking sixth senior long course crown.

Kamworor profits from Cheptegei's meltdown

Kampala, 2017

The flags were out and the passionate spectators were cheering wildly as home star Joshua Cheptegei had built up what appeared to be decisive winning lead in front of his adoring home fans. Except it didn’t quite pan out that way as the Ugandan’s race dramatically unravelled over a painstaking final kilometre.

Cheptegei had put in a blistering mid-race burst and opened up a 12-second lead on the defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor. That advantage had been whittled down to seven seconds entering the final lap, as the Ugandan started to pay for his over-exuberance.

Toiling in the head and humidity, running on rubbery legs and struggling to stay upright, Cheptegei was reduced to little more than a slow shuffle as Kamworor swept into the lead.

While the Kenyan went on to become the first man in 11 years to claim back-to-back senior world cross-country titles, the brave Cheptegei stuttered over the finish line in 30th.

O'Sullivan wins amid the mayhem

Marrakesh, 1998

Meticulous preparation, coupled with a cool head, enabled Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan to clinch victory from British rival Paula Radcliffe in a dramatic finale to the long-course race.

The 8km battle between the duo was set for a stunning crescendo as little separated O’Sullivan, Radcliffe and Ethiopia’s Gete Wami. However, race officials mistakenly sent the trio down the incorrect race route with 400 metres remaining. A bemused Wami almost stopped but O’Sullivan purposefully hit the front, confident her reconnaissance work would pay off.

“The night before I had run the course, where I knew there was a gap in the fence which would allow us back on the correct course by the finish line,” explains O’Sullivan. “So I took the initiative and then ran through the gap ahead of Paula and Gete.”

The Irishwoman went on to clinch a three-second victory from Radcliffe and the following day helped herself to victory in the short-course race.


2001 World Cross Country Championships

Senior women’s long course

So often outgunned in sprint finishes at major championships, Paula Radcliffe turned the tables on her Ethiopian rival Gete Wami to power to victory in conditions which can best be described as a quagmire in Ostend.

Radcliffe, the 1992 world U20 cross country champion, was outpaced to 10,000m gold by Wami at the 1999 World Championships in Seville and many expected a repeat at the Hippodrome Wellington when the tiny African edged ahead with 200m remaining.

Nonetheless, on this occasion, the Briton responded to surge past her long-time rival in the energy-sapping mud and claim a memorable title-winning success.

Steve Landells for the IAAF