The forced withdrawals through injuries of defending champions Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba has caused the field for the World Cross Country Championships in Amman to be suddenly thrown wide open.
|The Kenyan men's team acclimatise in Jordan [GALLO/GETTY]
The Ethiopian pair have dominated the event in the past, with Bekele winning six of the last seven men's championships and Dibaba taking three women's titles in 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Their dominance was on show at the Beijing Olympics when they completed the 5,000-10,000 metre sweeps.
However Bekele is currently recovering from an ankle stress fracture, while Dibaba is sidelined with a leg injury.
Traditional rivalries set to resume
Despite their absence, Ethiopians and Kenyans are still expected to battle for the medals as the championships take place in the Middle East for the first time.
More than 500 athletes from 63 countries are competing in the $300,000 championships, which feature senior men's and women's races and junior men's and women's events.
The Ethiopian senior team is led by Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who won the junior title in 2002, finished third in the long race in 2003 and took two silvers behind Bekele in 2004.
"We have a very strong and determined team and although Bekele will not be around, we are ready to keep the title another year,'' Gebremariam said.
He is joined by Tadesse Tola, who was seventh in Mombasa two years ago; Feyissa Lelisa, 14th in the junior race last year, and world indoor 3,000-meter champion Tariku Bekele.
Bekele posted a record six victories over the classic 12-kilometre distance since 2001, with his streak interrupted only by Eritrea's Zersenay Tadese in 2007.
Kenya searches for elusive win
Although Kenya has continued to dominate the team event, it has not had a long-course champion since Paul Tergat won the last of his five successive titles in 1999.
Ethiopia swept the individual titles and both women's team titles last year in Scotland, leaving Kenya only the senior and junior men's team gold.
Kenya's Mark Kiptoo, who finished second in 2007, said his country is poised for victory this year.
"We're extremely confident and well prepared for the event and we want to regain what we lost 10 years ago,'' Kiptoo said. "We have the will to win.''
Other Kenyan contenders include Leonard Komon, who was second last year, and Mangata Ndiwa, junior champion in 2006.
The men's field also includes world 3,000-metre steeplechase record-holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar.
Women's field ready for challenge
|Gelete Burka is a favourite in the women's field [GALLO/GETTY]
Among the women, Ethiopia is led by world indoor 1,500-metre champion Gelete Burka, a former world junior and world short course champion, and two-time bronze medalist Meselech Melkamu.
Kenya has 19-year-old Linet Masai, who won the junior race in 2007, took bronze in the senior event last year and was fourth in the Olympic 10,000-metre final in Beijing.
Kenyan-born Hilda Kebet, who was fifth last year, is now competing for the Netherlands.
"Last year, I was surprised to be in fifth place, so tomorrow I am very happy to be part of the event and I believe that all the hard work will eventually be rewarded,'' she said.
Genzebe Dibaba, the younger sister of Tirunesh, is running in the junior race.
"This year there are so many good competitors and it will be tough,'' she said.
"But I think I can win, and I'm preparing myself to win. I prefer it when my sister is here but she can't be here and it won't affect me.''
The traditional African dominance could be challenged by teams from the United States and Europe.
Britain's top entry is Stephanie Twell, the world junior 1,500-metre and European junior cross country champion.
The U.S. team includes 18-year-old German Fernandez, who last month set a junior world indoor record for the mile of 3:55.02.
Fernandez hopes to help the U.S. improve on its sixth-place team finish from last year.