Chelimo, Chebet reign supreme in Belgrade as Africa triumph in World Cross-County

East Africa continued its dominance in international cross-country, claiming all team and individual medals bar one at this year’s World Cross-Country Championships at an unseasonably warm Belgrade, Serbia, over the weekend.

With the exception of Great Britain’s bronze medal in the mixed relay, athletes from Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia went home with all the medals and prize money on offer at the championship, with the favourites, Jacob Chelimo of Uganda and Kenyan Beatrice Chebet living up to their pre-championship billing by defending their senior titles.

Samuel Kibathi of Kenya and Ethiopian Marta Alemayo have been marked as stars of future distant running following their impressive wins in the respective Junior championship events.

A measure of East African dominance was the fact that Spanish athlete Aaron Las Heras was the first athlete from a country other than Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea to finish in the men’s senior race, placing 17th overall while French athlete Mehdi Frere, who narrowly edged South African Bennet Seloyi out of a top twenty finish, was the only other non-African in the top twenty.

Jacob Chelimo – defended his title in Belgrade. Photo – World Athletics

Following the past two years where the more gradient and terrain-challenging championship courses in Denmark and Australia evoked the origins of the sport, the Serbian track (the same used  at the 2013 European Championships) reverted to the ‘flat and fast’ formula which has prevailed for most of the century.

Injuries to leading South Africans Kabelo Mulaudzi and Tayla Kavanagh during their respective races left their teams several places adrift of what might have been. In particular, South African cross-country champion Mulaudzi’s hamstring injury cost the team up to 45 points and a plausible 4th behind Ethiopia.

“It was a good championship and the team did quite well,” team leader and ASA Board Member Jakes Jacobs commented. “There are always many factors at play and you can’t predict a ‘DNF’.  Unfortunately, two of our favourites could not make it to the finish and that had a big impact on our team placings.

“Our champion Kabelo suffered a hamstring injury and could not finish while Tayla suffered heat exhaustion.  But on the other hand, Kyla Jacobs had a fantastic race while Bennett Seloyi also excelled as our first man home. Our Under 20 men’s team did really well to place fifth in the team contest. These are our stars of the future.

“I spoke to Bennett’s coach recently,” Jacobs continued. “And he confirmed that Bennet (from Central Gauteng) only started serious running last year. He has done really well to get to where he is now in such a short time.”

Nadeel Wildschutt – creditable performance at his World Cross Country debut. Photo – Stephen Granger

Nadeel Wildschutt, brother of record-breaking track star, Adriaan, made good use of his unexpected call-up, finishing third of six South Africans (40th overall) in the men’s senior race over 10km, behind Seloyi (21st) and Andries Sesedi (33rd).

“This was my first time representing South Africa at the World Cross Country Championships,” said the athlete from the Western Cape town of Ceres, Wildschutt.  “For me personally, the heat worked in our favour. Although the course seemed flat, it was adapted with muddy sections, artificial hills and other obstacles. 

“I feel that we could have done a lot better than finishing 8th in the team competition. Individually, I could’ve done a lot more. On the day, my body felt off, and I only managed to feel stronger in the second half of the race.

“However, I’m still very grateful for the opportunity and exposure to international competition. I have learnt a lot, so it was a valuable experience.”

Unlike many athletes who competed, Wildschutt has a full-time position as a high-school teacher. “I think my body might have been a bit overworked in the past three weeks,” Wildschutt admitted. “But at least there is a lot I can change and I’m very excited for the track and field season that lies ahead.”

Kyla Jacobs – leading South African finisher in Belgrade. Photo – Stephen Granger

Western Cape athlete Jacobs ran a perfectly timed race, starting cautiously and finishing strongly to overhaul her fast-starting teammates, Glenrose Xaba and Cacisile Sosibo, on the final lap of the women’s senior 10km race.

“The course was less technical and was faster and flatter than last year,” said Jacobs. “But it was so challenging in its own way with the Africans going out brutally fast! And it was not just the pace which was hot – the temperature rose to 28 degrees !”

Central Gauteng athlete, Rico Leijenaar (23rd), led teammates Zenzile Pheko (25th) and Musawenkosi Mnisi (27th) across the line in the Junior race over 8km to spearhead South Africa’s strong fifth position behind the East Africans.