Yasin Haji finished second at the Ethiopian Trials at the Jan Meda International Cross Country in February but he had the beating of his compatriots – and the rest of the world – in the junior men’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Guiyang 2015 on Saturday (28).
Back home, the 19-year-old is a member of the Federal Police sports club – the same club as Ethiopian greats Tirunesh Dibaba, Sileshi Sihine and Derartu Tulu – and Haji unleashed a fearsome sprint finish which his aforementioned club mates would have produced at their pomp.
Although prominent in the leading bunch, the Kenyan team didn’t start as quickly as their team-mates in the junior women’s race but they were nevertheless well to the fore through the first lap, which was completed in 5:48.
On the second lap, the Kenyans were the only country to boast a full complement of six runners in the leading group which was principally led by Geoffrey Korir and Alfred Ngeno.
The twists and undulations on the 1980-metre course made it difficult to maintain a consistent pace – and one muddy corner in particular caused mainly runners to slip and lose their footing – but the overall tempo remained consistent through the first two laps in 11:43, with the second one timed at 5:55.
By the third lap, the overall Ethiopian challenge, spearheaded by trials winner Yihunilign Adane, had largely petered out, although Haji remained tucked in behind a Kenyan triumvirate which also included Kenyan Trials winner Dominic Kiptarus, who was competing internationally for the first time.
After a slower third lap of 5:59, with a split of 16:42, Korir and Ngeno made a marked surge at the bell, which dropped both Kiptarus and Uganda’s world junior and African junior 10,000m champion Joshua Cheptegei, who had been tipped to become the first non-Kenyan or Ethiopian winner of this race since 1991.
Korir and Ngeno tried in vain to drop Haji, the world junior 5000m silver medallist, who was more than content to play the waiting game.
The Ethiopian didn’t touch the front until the finish-line came in to view around the final bend and, cheered on by his compatriots who dominated the junior women’s race at the start of the programme, Haji’s fearsome pace in the last 250 metres took him comfortably away from his front-running Kenyan rivals who couldn’t raise their rhythm.
Following in the footsteps of Hagos Gebrhiwet, Haji ensured the junior men’s title remained in Ethiopian hands as he took the title after 8010m of running in 23:42 with Korir, who was only fifth at their national trials in Nairobi last month, taking silver in 23:47 and Ngeno third in 23:54.
With Kiptarus and Rodgers Chumo fourth and 10th respectively, Kenya did gain a modicum of revenge on the Ethiopians by reclaiming the team title from their neighbours and rivals with 19 points to Ethiopia’s 33.
Sixth-placed Abraham Habte led Eritrea to the team bronze medals, returning to the junior men’s podium after being absent since Amman in 2009.
Bahrain’s Evans Chematot was the leading non-African finisher in fifth in 24:03 while Italy’s European junior cross-country champion Yemaneberhan Crippa was the leading European in 19th in 24:52.
Steven Mills for the IAAF