Rwanda’s lone hope at the 12th IAAF World Indoor Championship in Valencia, Sylvain Rukundo faces a tough challenge from regional champions in today’s 3000m qualification heats.
At Velodromo Luis Puig indoor stadium, Rukundo who is making his debut at the event is set to face Tanzania’s Dickson Marwa who has an outdoor personal best time of 7:42.94.
Others are Tariku Bekele who is relied on to win a medal for Ethiopia after his elder brother and defending champion Kenenisia Bekele pulled out of the event choosing to focus his attention on regaining the World Cross Country title.
Tariku, who this season is actually the faster of the Bekele brothers, has the World’s fastest time of 7:31:09. Tariku has matured notably since he finished sixth behind his brother in Moscow two years ago and arrives in Valencia as a solid podium favorite.
Leading the Kenyan challenge is Steeplechase specialist Paul Kipsiele Koech, who has performed admirably indoors over the distance minus the barriers and water jump.
Last month in Birmingham he chased Bekele to a World best over two Miles and was rewarded with a national mark of 8:06.48 of his own.
Other Ethiopian in the mix include Bekele’s back-up, teenager Abraham Feleke, who cruised to a World junior best 7:38.03 in Stuttgart behind the younger Bekele.
Kenya’s Edwin Cheruiyot Soi, who celebrated his 22nd birthday this week, is the other Kenyan who has a 7:36.70 personal best to his credit this season set on the Valencia track.
The other regional entrant is Burundian Audace Baguma who like Rukundo is making his debut at the World Indoor championships.
Among the chief challengers aiming to keep the title out of African continent clutches is Australian Craig Mottram, the two-time World Cup champion.
Mottram proved his mettle this season with an Area record 7:34.50 in Boston in January, and warmed up over the weekend by taking the Australian title over the distance outdoors.
If Rukundo reaches the final stage, he will be the country’s first athlete to do so in the athletics history.
Former long distance champion Mathius Ntawurikura failed to reach the final stage of 3000m in the 1991 edition which was held in Seville Spain. This remains Rwanda’s only participation in the World indoor championships in athletics.
Rukundo was also unlucky at the All Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria, after he failed to clinch a medal in the 5000m.
The evergreen Maria Mutola, long distance sensation Meseret Defar, pole vault queen Yelena Isinbayeva and 60 metres hurdler Susanna Kallur will be among the attractions in the women’s events.
As for the men, there are mouth-watering contests in prospect in the 60 metre hurdles, the shot put and the middle distance events, while Olympic champion Stefan Holm will be targeting a fourth indoor crown in the high jump.
Although he cannot compete in Beijing, British sprinter Dwain Chambers will also be in the spotlight after his controversial return to athletics following a two-year doping ban for the designer steroid THG.
For Mutola, the most successful indoor athlete of all time, Valencia will be a special occasion as she bids for an eighth gold medal in the 800 before she retires at the end of the season after 15 years at the top.
"I’ve got two dreams to fulfil this year. The first is to defend my title in Valencia and the second is to get gold in Beijing," the 35-year-old said recently. Mutola, who won Mozambique’s first Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000, will face tough competition with Russia’s Natalya Ignatova and home favourite Mayte Martinez amongst her rivals.
Ethiopia’s Defar is one of four world outdoor and indoor champions competing in Valencia.
The world and Olympic 5,000 metre gold medallist ran the fastest ever indoor two miles in Boston and is hot favourite to emulate Gabriela Szabo and win a third consecutive 3,000 metre title, while world record holder Yelena Soboleva will take some beating in the 1,500.
Wilfred Bungei is unable to defend his 800 metres title because of injury, but fellow Kenyan Daniel Kipchirchir Komen is the front runner in the 1,500 after setting the leading mark this year.
In the sprints Chambers has a real chance of a medal, but the 29-year-old is likely to face more questions about past doping more than current form after UK Athletics’ reluctant decision to include him in their team.