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Kenyans bruised in Aarhus as World X-C breathes new thrilling life; IAAF promise changes

EVEN to a lot of Kenyan track and field followers the 5,000m races, especially men’s, in the annual IAAF Diamond League are a complete bore. The commentators on races loaded with fields of up to nine Kenyans out of 13 make it sound like a “staged” affair; almost like the deceitful WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).

World athletics has a problem. The sport with the wildly largest following during the Olympics — packed stadiums of up 80,000 on top prize tickets — is a pitiably sad business in-between the Olympiad years. When he took over as head of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) Seb Coe expressed the opinion that the sport’s business outside the Olympics and IAAF World Championships was poor.

TOP: Helen Obiri adds senior women title at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus to her 3,000m indoor and 5,000m outdoor world titles. Above: Helen Obiri (centre) before breaking off from Dera Dida (right) and Letesenbet Gidei of Ethiopia

TOP: Helen Obiri adds senior women title at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus to her 3,000m indoor and 5,000m outdoor world titles. Above: Helen Obiri (centre) before breaking off from Dera Dida (right) and Peruth Chemutai of Uganda

He was saying what is obvious to a lot of people. How can IAAF athletics commercially lag behind so many other sports — let alone giant organisations such as FIFA, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) — including even Formula 1 racing?

There is little evidence that Lord Coe, almost four years down the road after assuming leadership in August 2015, has done anything radical and for the better commerce and building passionate following for athletics round the world.

The annual circus is still run by the same old business people on the ‘tour’ round Brussels, Weltklasse Zürich, Lausanne, Stockholm, Bislett Stadion, Eugene for the Prefontaine Classic etc. Same old theme with television owners now reducing it to a 90-minute night entertainment. That’s right, ‘entertainment’.

The only other victory for Kenya in Aarhus, Beatrice Chebet (centre) was judged to have breasted the tape first in a dead heat, with Alemitu Tariku (right) and Tsigie Gebreselama of Ethiopia

The only other victory for Kenya in Aarhus, Beatrice Chebet (centre) was judged to have breasted the tape first in a dead heat with Alemitu Tariku (right) and Tsigie Gebreselama of Ethiopia

The spectators’ passion for track and field is the ‘sweat and blood’ championship battles. Test — five-day — and ODI (One Day International) cricket is still okay with a lot of folk an indeed with the television people.  Athletics follower would still be okay with a whole-day — even under scorching heat in Africa — track and field competition; even arrive five hours ahead of a marathon that takes two hours 30 minutes … and more.

Who pays the piper calls the tune; (read TV people) and that’s fine. The television companies can continue to have their way. Only that they will be confirming what everyone knew. That after the top cream are finished with the Olympics and the World Athletics Championships — and that includes even the top Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance runners — the rest of the ‘circus’ is left to mostly ‘journeymen/women’. This is what Coe said needed to be fixed, so that athletics competition could be top class, attractive to bigger crowds of spectators and that it would earn a lot more money.

Joshua Cheptegei, cuts tape at 31min 40secs, to win Uganda’s first ever senior men’s title at the World Cross Country Championships. Compatriot Jacob Kiplimo (31.44) took silver medal in an epic race where they drowned pundits’ favourite, defendning champion Geoffrey Kipsang’ Kamworor (bronze, 31.55)

Joshua Cheptegei cuts the tape at 31min 40secs, to win Uganda’s first ever senior men’s title at the World Cross Country Championships. Compatriot Jacob Kiplimo (31.44) took the silver medal in an epic race where they drowned pundits’ favourite, defending champion Geoffrey Kipsang’ Kamworor (bronze, 31.55)

Under present circumstances, how can IAAF meets compete round the year with, for instance, football, whose every (weekend) match has Messi, Ronaldo, Pogba, Salah and Mane? Formula 1 where Hamilton is ever present on the grid or Lebron James for NBA (National Basketball Association)?

The astronomically rich UEFA, with all their top draw programmes renovate daily; tweaking with things that already work and exploring upward growth including now mooting a Nations League (a league between nations; like club matches, between, say, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Serbia).

The Ugandans Joshua Cheptegei (left) and Jacob Kiplimo (right) pull away to defeat senior men’s defending champion Geoffrey Kipsang’ Kamworor of Kenya

The Ugandans Joshua Cheptegei (left) and Jacob Kiplimo (right) pull away to defeat senior men’s defending champion Geoffrey Kipsang’ Kamworor of Kenya

But it sounds like it is not radical changes we should be expecting from Lord Coe, if his and IAAF chief executive officer, Jon Ridgeon, meeting on the weekend with Athletics Kenya (AK) boss Gen Jackson Tuwei is anything to go by. The IAAF reported that the three met during the World Cross-country Championships (WXC) in Aarhus in order to avoid any misunderstanding between the two organisations over the new Diamond League format approved by the IAAF Council in Doha earlier this month. The displeased Kenyans feel the format containing the exclusion of any event longer than 3,000m from the Diamond League programme next year and the reduction in the number of meetings from 14 to 13 will be unfair.

A possible climb down may please the Kenyans but it is unlikely to improve the appeal of IAAF annual programme vis a vis other competing world sports.

No medal for Kenya in the under-20 men’s race. 1 Milkesa Mengesha (Ethiopia), 2 Tadese Worku (Ethiopia), 3 Oscar Chelimo (Uganda)

No medal for Kenya in the under-20 men’s race. 1 Milkesa Mengesha (Ethiopia), 2 Tadese Worku (Ethiopia), 3 Oscar Chelimo (Uganda)

Reportedly, Tuwei sought and received, assurance that Kenyan and other East African athletes, who feature prominently in 5,000m races, would not lose competition opportunities due to this process. Tuwei also sought to understand the reasons why the new format was being introduced. Ridgeon explained that the IAAF’s market research showed that producing a series that consistently featured the best athletes competing against each other was a key factor in improving the appeal of the Diamond League for broadcasters and fans.

That is not only Ridgeon saying. It would be the desire of every athletics follower in the world. That’s why they love the Olympics and the World Champions –genuine, raw, hard competition.

A chasing group in Aarhus on Saturday

A chasing group in the senior men’s race on the  exciting course in Aarhus on Saturday

Will IAAF — so many years behind at innovation from Fifa, UEFA, NBA, FIA (Formula 1) etc. — think outside the box? Coe on the weekend promised changes that “will result in a stronger, higher-profile, commercially-successful annual showcase series for our sport.” But can the ‘Yak’ Diamond League Series be resuscitated from its current “WWE” reputation?

Several ideas to consider. Radical introduction. Rally track and field passion around ‘inter-nations rivalry’. From the ‘Cold War’ days, does Seb Coe remember the amateur days of the annual USA v USSR track meeting?  Instead of those Kenyans — week-in-week-out, running among themselves – and only the odd Ethiopian, Eritrean, Ugandan or US runner in, how about IAAF supporting, in organisation and commercialization, a full-fledged annual Kenya v Ethiopia head-on clash. A Cuba v USA; GB v Germany; Canada v Jamaica; Brazil v France etc.

Seb Coe (left) with USA runners at the world championships in Kampala, Uganda in 2017. In taking IAAF Presidency in 2015, he said athletics' full potential, commercially and spectator appeal ought to be realised. He has promised changes

Seb Coe (left) with USA runners at the World Cross-country Championships in Kampala, Uganda in 2017. On takingover  IAAF Presidency in 2015, he said athletics’ full potential, commercially and on  spectator appeal, ought to be realised. He has promised changes

A “Nations League” sounds a viability under the full technical and commercial management — on member association behalf — of the IAAF. The world body can work out the format; Premier League, Second Tier, Third Tier etc. Also consider national and cultural rivalry that could produce spectator passion ‘fireworks’. In competitions of this nature, spectators would be less ‘choosey’ about who comes to compete. It would be the national shirt in each race, event that would be the draw; negating the lack of interest by the top stars like we see in the Diamond League.

This format, allows for more mouth-watering match-ups many have never even thought about. Ever imagine possible a Kenya v Japan in Tokyo; the return ‘rubber’ the following year in Nairobi? A Triangular, Kenya/South Africa/Nigeria and the great opportunity for Nigerian bragging rights because there would be epic sprints and field battles, SA v Nigeria and Kenya would have to pick up wins in all their traditional abilities in order to win this. A USA/Britain/Germany triangular?

Taking the sport to the masses … IAAF President Seb Coe (second from right), visiting India, population 1.2 billion, meets India athletics federation, government sports minister and country’s director general of sport

Taking the sport to the masses … IAAF President Seb Coe (second from right), visiting India, population 1.3 billion, meets India athletics federation, government sports minister and country’s director general of sport

Meanwhile cross country running at the highest level just became thrilling. In Aarhus on the weekend, the course was thrillingly baffling. The casualties were mostly Kenya and the winners the rest of the world. Reality was thrust back that, with innovation, the sport belongs to many more than just Kenyans.

Helen Obiri of course affirmed Kenya’s class that cannot be doused by a drop, once-in-a-while, in their staggering standards. She won the senior women’s title adding to indoor (3,000m) and outdoor (5,000m) world titles. Kenya’s Beatrice Chebet also, almost on golfing ‘count-back’, won the under-20 women’s title after a dead-heat finish with Alemitu Tariku Tsigie Gebresalama of Ethiopia.

That was as far as Kenya got, Aarhus becoming one of their poor performances in recent times. They won two gold medals, just like Uganda, after Ethiopia took a thumping five. Kenya managed zero team titles and failed altogether to get a medal in Obiri’s and the men under-20 races. Acknowledging that current AK ineffectual leadership contributes immensely to the country exploiting its full potential maybe the elephant in the room.

A storming final leg run from Fantu Worku in the mixed relay gave Ethiopia the first gold medal of the day at Aarhus

A storming final leg run from Fantu Worku in the mixed relay gave Ethiopia the first gold medal of the day, over Morocco and Kenya in Aarhus

This was Kenya, who between 1981 and 2011, with Ethiopia as their side-kicks were stunningly so dominant that the rest of world was beginning to wonder whether they would ever again have a fair fighting chance in this sport. Lamine Diack, then head of IAAF could not have cared less – being from the athletics ignonimous Senegal — acquiesced to turn the WXC from an annual event to run every two years. A stupid decision from a man who, as his later life showed, proved to care little about athletics and a lot about self; going out under a cloud of bribery, fraud and plain stealing scandals alongside his son Massita Papa Diack. Served him right.

Things can change. The WXC can excite a lot more than Kenyans. One, the course. The beautifully thought-out design in Aarhus ‘snookered’ Kenyans who did not research, plan and show respect to changing times. Obviously they assumed course lay-out would always be the usual, flat, few climbs, rough, dusty, muddy at low or high altitude. Aarhus was a designer’s master-piece, a spectators’ dream. It is also possible to have passionate spectators in Europe, as Aarhus demonstrated.

Another thing Coe would change. Return WXC to an annual event under organisation as meticulous as was in Aarhus. The IAAF should start looking at cross country in its traditional context. It’s a start-of-the season thing. It was and is what every school starting youngster knows as introduction to an athletics season. Cross country should be run by every athlete for several weeks ahead of the traditional track and road racing season. And athletes should meet every year at a world gathering.

Cross country’s school and community popularity in Britain, the USA university circuit and continental Europe, for instance, is phenomenal. These are the places world cross-country victories was domiciled; 1973 to 1981 (powerhouses being Belgium, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, USA, Norway, Italy, and Romania) before first, Ethiopia, Morocco and then Kenya would start winning. The mythical Kenya/Ethiopia ‘historic’ domination is ‘FAKE NEWS’. The East Africans come to the real fore in 1981, to date.

How about the 100m and 200m sprints; an American/Caribbean and generally African domination where few else have a ‘break’. Why no eyebrows, change of calendar, exclusion from Diamond League … all the ‘sanctions’?

-Additional reporting by Correspondents, IAAF

2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships
Aarhus, Denmark
Medalists
Event
Gold
Silver
Bronze
Individual
Senior men
(10 km)
 Joshua Cheptegei (UGA)
31:40
 Jacob Kiplimo (UGA)
31:44
 Geoffrey Kamworor (KEN)
31:55
Senior women
(10 km)
 Hellen Obiri (KEN)
36:14
 Dera Dida (ETH)
36:16
 Letesenbet Gidey (ETH)
36:24
Junior men
(8 km)
 Milkesa Mengesha (ETH)
23:52
 Tadese Worku (ETH)
23:54
 Oscar Chelimo (UGA)
23:55
Junior women
(6 km)
 Beatrice Chebet (KEN)
20:50
 Alemitu Tariku (ETH)
20:50
 Tsigie Gebreselama (ETH)
20:50
Relay
Mixed Relay
 Ethiopia
  • Kebede Endale
  • Bone Cheluke
  • Teddese Lemi
  • Fantu Worku
25:49
 Morocco
  • Soufiane El Bakkali
  • Kaoutar Farkoussi
  • Abdelaati Iguider
  • Rababe Arafi
26:22
 Kenya
  • Conseslus Kipruto
  • Jarinter Mawia Mwasya
  • Elijah Motonei Manangoi
  • Winfred Nzisa Mbithe
26:29
Team
Senior men
 Uganda
  • Joshua Cheptegei (1)
  • Jacob Kiplimo (2)
  • Thomas Ayeko (7)
  • Joel Ayeko (10)
  • Albert Chemutai (12)
  • Maxwell Rotich (27)
20
 Kenya
  • Geoffrey Kamworor (3)
  • Rhones Kipruto (6)
  • Richard Yator (13)
  • Rodgers Kwemoi (21)
  • Amos Kirui (38)
  • Evans Keitany Kiptum (45)
43
 Ethiopia
  • Selemon Barega (5)
  • Andamlak Belihu (8)
  • Abdi Fufa (15)
  • Mogos Tuemay (18)
  • Enyew Mekonnen (25)
  • Bonsa Dida (40)
46
Senior women
Ethiopia
  • Dera Dida (2)
  • Letesenbet Gidey (3)
  • Let Gemechu (6)
  • Zenebu Fikadu (10)
  • Fotyen Tesfay (11)
  • Hawi Feysa (17)
21
 Kenya
  • Hellen Obiri (1)
  • Beatrice Chepkoech (7)
  • Eva Cherono (8)
  • Deborah Samum (9)
  • Lilian Kasait Rengeruk (12)
  • Beatrice Chepkemoi Mutai (31)
25
 Uganda
  • Rachael Zena Chebet (4)
  • Peruth Chemutai (5)
  • Juliet Chekwel (13)
  • Esther Chebet (14)
  • Stella Chesang (21)
  • Doreen Chesang (63)
36
Junior men
 Ethiopia
  • Milkesa Mengesha (1)
  • Tadese Worku (2)
  • Tsegay Kidanu (5)
  • Gebregewergs Teklay (10)
  • Dinkalem Ayele (11)
  • Getnet Yetwale (21)
18
 Uganda
  • Oscar Chelimo (3)
  • Hosea Kiplangat (6)
  • Samuel Kibet (9)
  • Mathew Job Chekwurui (14)
  • Dan Chebet (19)
  • Denis Cherotich (22)
32
 Kenya
  • Leonard Kipkemoi Bett (4)
  • Edwin Kiplangat Bett (7)
  • Samwel Chebolei Masai (8)
  • Charles Katul Lokir (15)
  • Cleophas Kandie Meyan (18)
34
Junior women
 Ethiopia
  • Alemitu Tariku (2)
  • Tsigie Gebreselama (3)
  • Girmawit Gebrzihair (5)
  • Mizan Alem (7)
  • Wede Kefale (8)
  • Meselu Berhe (11)
17
 Kenya
  • Beatrice Chebet (1)
  • Betty Chepkemoi Kibet (6)
  • Jackline Chepwogen Rotich (9)
  • Lydia Jeruto Lagat (10)
  • Mercy Chepkorir Kirarei (12)
  • Mercy Jerop (13)
26
 Japan
  • Ayuka Kazama (14)
  • Ririka Hironaka (15)
  • Chika Kosakai (21)
  • Hazuki Doi (22)
  • Miku Sakai (29)
  • Hikari Ohnishi (33)
72

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