The Kenyan legion of 23 athletes will seek to stamp its authority as it parades at Sunday’s inaugural Africa Cross Country Championship in Cape Town, South Africa.
Athletes will be out to clinch the first medals for an event that has been forced down upon the continents to help IAAF maintain the interest in the world’s oldest sports discipline.
Hosts South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Madagascar, Eritrea, Botswana, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi and Namibia will be represented.
And with Ethiopia and Kenya reigning in cross country at the global level, a major showdown is in the offing. Throw in Eritrea, Uganda and South Africa and it becomes toxic.
The IAAF will be adopting a two-year alternating format for its World Cross Country Championship in Punta Umbria, Spain, on March 20.
The event in Cape Town will be a temporary reprieve for Athletics Kenya as attention shifts from the controversy over the axing of veteran Leonard Komon from the Spain team to possible medals up for grabs Down South.
Leading Kenya’s quest are athletes who have excelled in their junior days – John Mwangangi and Mercy Cherono, the captain and assistant captain, respectively.
Mwangangi, the Africa Junior 5,000m silver medallist, is in the senior men’s 12km race with Henry Chirchir, Stephen Kiprotich and Philip Kiprono.
Since Paul Tergat, the five-time World Cross champion, retired from this event in 2000, Kenya has found it hard to dominate in this event until last year when Joseph Ebuya reclaimed the gold in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
But in Cape Town, this performance has only catalysed the singling out of the Kenyan men and Mwangangi will be a marked man.
Set a new benchmark
“It is going to be hard, but I expect a good performance. We have been branded as second string but we have the chance to show the world that any team Kenya picks still is the best,” said Mwangangi, adding that he is targeting a sweep of the top six places.
“The performance in Poland still ranks [Kenya’s] highest. But we want to challenge it and set a new benchmark. We want to have all the 23 players tops in their respective races,” he said.
Head coach Julius Kirwa, who was able to have his athletes train on the course on Friday evening, said: “The weather here is fine and we are used to this type of conditions even back home; so I do not expect any extreme effect on my athletes.
“The team is well prepared and focussed and now it is upon them to show what they have.”
Kenya arrived in Cape Town in two batches and Kirwa says the delay has not impacted negatively on his team: “Everyone is upbeat and ready for battle. The competition is not easy and there is no saying this is Africa.”
Kenya team to Cape Town
6km Junior Women: Caroline Chepkoech, Jepchirchir Jeruto, Zipporah Wanjiru, Mary Munanu, Alice Aprot, Norah Jeruto; 8km Junior Men: Patrick Muaka, Japheth Korir, Denis Kipruto, Edwin Mokua, Nicholas Togom, Peter Kitur; 8km Senior Women: Pauline Njeri, Doris Changeiywo, Viola Kibiwott, Mercy Cherono, Iness Chenonge; 12km Senior Men: Henry Chirchir, Stephen Kiprotich, John Mwangangi, Philip Kiprono