World Cross Country Championships: Cheptegei says men’s field ‘strongest ever’

Joshua Cheptegei
Joshua Cheptegei is a double world record holder on the track

Defending champion Joshua Cheptegei has said the men’s 10k field for Saturday’s revived World Cross Country Championships is “one of the strongest ever assembled”.

The championships, being held in Bathurst, Australia, are taking place for the first time in four years after the biannual event was cancelled in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

East African athletes are expected to once again exert their dominance. All of the senior male podium finishers from the 2019 edition in Aarhus, Denmark, will be lining up – led by the Ugandan duo of Cheptegei and silver medallist Jacob Kiplimo, with Kenya’s two-time champion Geoffrey Kamworor also competing.

Cheptegei, himself a two-time track world champion in the 10,000m, now hopes to join the list of other successful East Africans, such as Kamworor, who have won multiple cross country titles on the global stage.

“The field is incredible – it has brought together incredible athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Burundi, so it would be huge to win again,” the 26-year-old told BBC Sport Africa from Bathurst.

“Everybody has put in a lot of training coming to Australia. The athletes here are all sports heroes in their countries and I can say with respect that this is one of the strongest fields ever.”

It will be the first event Cheptegei, who also holds track world records for the 5,000m and 10,000m, has competed in 2023, with injury problems limiting him to a single race since the successful defence of his 10,000m title at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon last year.

“I’ve had a tough time preparing as I was also still working on my rehabilitation after the injury,” he said.

“But I’m now feeling okay again and I am so excited to get my fitness back. I am able to run on different courses again.”

Thirst for podiums

Francine Niyonsaba
Francine Niyonsaba has been in exceptional form since stepping up to the 5,000m

Kenya’s Kamworor has had his own injury struggles – picked up when he was hit by a motorbike during a training session near his home in June 2021.

He was forced to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics despite running the fastest 10,000m on Kenyan soil during that year’s national trials.

He will be hoping to quench his thirst for a podium place, something he has been unable to achieve since winning the New York Marathon in 2019.

“It feels great to be back to the cross country, it gives me an opportunity to go back to winning ways and most importantly to try and reclaim the title,” Kamworor told Sport Africa.

Kamworor beat Cheptegei to win the 2017 World Cross Country title in Kampala. Now aged 30, he will be using this year’s race as a test event ahead of his London Marathon participation in April.

Other East African athletes competing in Australia include former half marathon world record-holder Kibiwott Kandie of Kenya and Burundi’s Thierry Ndikumwenayo.

When it comes to the women, with defending 10k champion Hellen Obiri not involved, all eyes will be on Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey, who finished third in the last edition, and Kenya’s Beatrice Chebet, the 2019 junior champion.

Gidey, who like Cheptegei is the 5,000m and 10,000m world record holder on the track, has also tasted cross country glory in the junior category. She won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and is hot favourite to claim her first senior win.

She could also be challenged by Burundi’s only female representative, Francine Niyonsaba, who has been sensational since being forced to move up to longer distances after being barred from competing in the 800m by a World Athletics rule affecting female athletes with high testosterone levels.

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