It’s a question we’ve been asking at the World Cross Country Championships for decades, so dominant have those two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, been since the 1980’s. The one in Kampala 26.March 2017 are the 42nd World XC Championship.


A quick glance at the facts and figures of the event will reveal that they are far and away the most successful nations, having between them now won 559 of the 996 available medals since 1973. Kampala should see the 1000th medal awarded in the under-20 women’s race.

We haven’t had any winner from outside Kenya and Ethiopia since 2007, the last time the championships were in Africa. Then, the two big individual titles went to an Eritrean and a Dutchwoman.

Considering teams and under-20’s, we must go even further back. For instance, the last non-Kenyn or non-Ethiopian winners in the under-20 men’s team event were the United States in 1981. That particular race signalled a change in eras with Tunisia’s Mohammed Chouri becoming the first-ever African individual winner of an IAAF World Championship, in 1981.


While few other countries can now mount a challenge, the rivalry between Kenya and Ethiopia is intense. It doesn’t seem likely that Kenya will ever again be allowed to accumulate the 18 successive team titles they won in 1986-2003, one of the most impressive win streaks in any sport.

The longest current victory sequence is the five consecutive individual golds won by senior Kenyan women.

Now that the championships are staged every other year and without an additional short course event, there is little movement in the tables of the most bemedalled individuals.

Who will ever join Kenenisa Bekele (left), Worknesh Kidane (middle) or Tirunesh Dibaba (right) on 20 or more medals? One who should climb that list is Dibaba’s sister Genzebe, who surely will collect a medal from the first running of the mixed relay race. Genzebe Dibaba currently has four gold, two silvers and one bronze. Along with Tirunesh and Ejagayehu (six medals), the three Dibaba sisters already have 33 world cross medals. That’s a higher total than all but six countries.

China Athletics Worlds

Photo: Genzebe Dibaba currently has four gold, two silvers and one bronze from WC cross country.


Among the entries for Kampala are runners from France, Great Britain & NI, Spain and the United States. That means those four countries will continue their unbroken record of attendance at the championships, having competed in all previous 41 editions. One statistic which can never be beaten by Kenya or Ethiopia.


There is always excitement in Ethiopia when an athlete comes along to simultaneously hold national titles in cross country and on the track. Fascination takes over about his running style, comparisons are made with the country’s crop of past champions, and anticipation builds ahead of his or her next international foray.

So one can imagine the euphoria which greeted Getaneh Molla last month when he crossed the finish line at the 34th Jan Meda International Cross Country to take the senior men’s 10km title in Addis Ababa. The victory not only triumphantly confirmed his place in Ethiopia’s team for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017, but completed a unique double of two national titles in cross country and the 5000m on the track. Comparisons were quickly drawn with the last Ethiopian to master both the track and the cross with equal success- Kenenisa Bekele.


Photo: Getaneh Molla at the 33th Jan Meda International Cross Country in 2016.

“Comparing me against Kenenisa [Bekele] is impractical,” says Molla. “Kenenisa is a unique creature. He is my inspiration and I have always admired him. This is a huge complement. It will help me realise my potential.”


With his record five short and long course double titles between 2002 and 2006, Bekele is the undisputed king of the mud and will not easily be emulated by future champions especially after the unfolding of the short course race in 2011.

In Kampala, however, Getaneh Molla has set his sights on a first title on his world cross debut and hopes to become the first Ethiopian in six years to win a senior men’s title following Imane Merga’s victory in 2011. And the Defence Club runner, along with compatriots national senior women’s champion Dera Dida, defending world junior champion Letesenbet Gidey, and others, is also keen to reverse Ethiopia’s run of poor form whenever the world cross country championships are held on African soil.

Photo: Dera Dida, the Ethiopian XC Champion 2017 (left), and the defending WC XC junior champion, Letesenbet Gidey (right).

Memories are still fresh of the country’s forgettable experience in Mombasa, Kenya ten years ago when Bekele was outrun by Eritrea’s Zeresenay Tadesse before dropping out of the race. Defending women’s champion Tirunesh Dibaba could only finish third, while several members of the team suffered heat strokes and had subpar races as temperatures topped 35 degrees and the humidity wobbled around 93% in sauna bath-like conditions.

“I expect tough competition because our rivals will be well prepared,” says Molla. “I do not know the Kenyans individually and cannot say which ones are particularly strong. I know my teammates are also tough runners. I will try my best to win, but I don’t mind if I lose to my teammate. Our coaches have told us about the weather we can expect. We are training around Kaliti (a warm and flat industrial suburb of Addis Ababa) in the afternoons to prepare for the hot weather. I believe this will give us better advantage.



The course is located at Kololo Independence Grounds, approximately three kilometres from the city centre. It hosted the 2014 African Cross Country Championships and, more recently, the Ugandan Cross Country Championships in January.

The two-kilometre loop is mostly covered in grass and has an average elevation of about seven metres. In addition to the two natural hills, a man-made hill, a ditch and other obstacles have been added to make the course more challenging.

The U20 women’s race is made up of three laps, while the U20 men’s race will be held over four laps. Both of the senior races comprise five laps. Runners in the mixed relay will complete one lap each for a total of four laps per team.

PRIZE MONEY Prize (in US$) – senior men’s and women’s races only*

Individual races:
1st – 30,000
2nd – 15,000
3rd – 10,000
4th – 7000
5th – 5000
6th – 3000

Team races:
1st – 20,000
2nd – 16,000
3rd – 12,000
4th – 10,000
5th – 8000
6th – 4000

Relay race:
1st – 12,000
2nd – 8000
3rd – 6000
4th – 4000

* No prize money paid for the junior races. The payment of prize money in the senior races is dependent upon the athletes clearing the usual anti-doping procedures.