April 17, 2024

The origins of Kenya’s rise to cross country dominance

The origins of Kenya’s rise to cross country dominance
John Ngugi during the men's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Stavanger, Norway. Ngugi won the gold medal

Kenya’s arrival as a dominant cross country force – in time, the most dominant in the 50-year history of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships – came in 1986

Kenya’s arrival as a dominant cross country force – in time, the most dominant in the 50-year history of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships – came in 1986 in Neuchatel, the capital of Switzerland’s watch industry.

It was their sixth appearance in the championships and in the senior men’s race they had yet to strike individual or collective gold. The Kenyans had gained team bronze on two occasions, on their debut in Madrid in 1981, and at Gateshead in 1983. And, on the individual front, Some Muge had finished third in 1983 and Paul Kipkoech second in 1985.

In the showpiece senior men’s race, however, the nation that changed the face of distance running on the track in the 1960s arrived in Neuchatel in 1986 still in search of a Midas touch – unlike their East African neighbours.

Ethiopia had stolen a march on them on the global cross country stage.

The Ethiopians also made their first appearance in the Spanish capital in 1981, sweeping to an emphatic team victory despite their six counters all miscounting the laps and sprinting for the line with one circuit still remaining. They arrived in Switzerland on a roll of five successive team successes.

The Ethiopians had also claimed the coveted individual senior men’s team crown twice: courtesy of Mohammed Kedir in Rome in 1982 and the 20-year-old Bekele Debele in a blanket finish with Portugal’s Carlos Lopes and Muge in Gateshead in 1983, all three medallists clocking the same time.

In Neuchatel, at the Swiss cross country skiing centre, the power of global cross country running was to lock into the axis of an enduring East African rivalry, tilting suddenly and dramatically in Kenya’s favour.

The senior men’s 12km race attracted 337 participants from 49 countries, making it, to date, the largest ever single event in the 50 years of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships.

Kenyans finished first and third, John Ngugi securing the first of his five individual titles ahead of Ethiopian marathon specialist Abebe Mekonnen, with fellow Kenyan Joseph Kiptum in third.

In all, Kenya had five men in the top eight, with Kipkoech, the future world 10,000m champion, fifth, Kipsubai Koskei seventh and Muge eighth. The red-vested tide overwhelmed the defending team championships.

With Andrew Masai the sixth counter in 21st place, the Kenyan tally of 45 points secured the title with a record low score. Ethiopia had just two men in the top 10: Mekonnen (second) and Debele (fourth). They finished distant runners up with 119 points.

And so the great East African rivalry for world cross country supremacy was joined in earnest.

In individual terms, it was the first time that all three medals in the senior men’s race had been won by Kenyans and Ethiopians. That has happened a further 12 times since in the senior men’s long race, including three Kenyan medal sweeps (in 1988, 1996 and 1997) and one for Ethiopia (in 2004).

In 12 of the 14 senior men’s long course races between 1986 and 1999, the individual title was won by a Kenyan. Eleven of the 14 silver medals went to Kenyans too.

On a broader scope, the big breakthrough in Neuchatel set in motion the longest winning team streak in the history of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships.

Kenya took the team prize in the senior men’s long course race for 18 successive years, a stranglehold that stretched all the way from 1986 to 2003.

Their most dominant performance in the race also came in the 1980s, at the 1988 championships in Auckland. For the first time, African runners filled the top 10. Only Mekonnen in fifth place prevented a Kenyan sweep of the first nine positions at Ellerslie Racecourse.

The Kenyan near-monopoly read: 1 Ngugi, 2 Kipkoech, 3 Koskei, 4 Boniface Merande; 6 Moses Tanui, 7 Kiptum, 8 Kip Rono, 9 Muge.

The team title was retained with a record low 23 points, Ethiopia finishing second with 103.

Across all three races in Auckland, Kenya won a record seven medals. In the 50 years of the World Cross Country Championships, they stand top of the medal chart with 324, followed by Ethiopia with 275 and the USA with 63.

They have also won the most team golds (85) and stand a close second to Ethiopia in terms of team medals of any colour (134-136).

Since their winning run in the team section of the senior men’s race was ended by Ethiopia in 2004, Kenya has gained six more golds (successively from 2006 to 2011) and Ethiopia five.

Of course, at the most recent championships, in Aarhus in 2019, the Kenyan-Ethiopian stranglehold stretching back to 1981 was broken by the emergence of a new East African force in Uganda. Kenya took silver and Ethiopia bronze.

So, intriguingly, the World Cross Country Championships enters its second half century with the tide in the senior men’s long race potentially turning once again. The rise of Uganda, however, is a story for another day’s feature in this series.

-World Athletics