The magnificent setting of Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, Scotland will play host to the 10th Spar European Cross Country Championships on Sunday 14 December, which has attracted a formidable line-up of top names representing the cream of European cross country running.
Emphasising the still youthful history of this annual event, both the inaugural winners of the men’s and women’s European titles from 1994, Paulo Guerra of Portugal and Ireland’s Catherina McKiernan will be participating, and can be considered as outside bets for gold.
However, most attention will be focused on arguably one of the world’s finest ever female distance runners, Paula Radcliffe. The Briton's recent decision to contest these championships on home territory will have come as a boost to the event’s organisers, who hope to attract a large crowd of spectators and have laid on a full day’s programme of supporting events to keep them entertained.
Of the nine editions of the men’s championship so far contested, all but two titles (1996 Jon Brown GBR and 1997 Carsten Jorgensen DEN) have been won by just two athletes, four time titlist Guerra, 33, and Ukraine’s three-time gold medallist and defending champion Sergiy Lebid, 28, both of whom will contest the crown once more on Sunday.
Portugal, Spain, and France - strength in depth
Though Guerra, who finished strongly to take sixth place in Llodio, Spain on 30 November and was 9th in Soira the week before, is showing a glimmer of the form which last took him to the continental title in 2000, it has been his Portuguese compatriot Eduardo Henriques, the 1999 European silver medallist who has been in much better fettle.
Henriques, 35, who was sixteenth at the World Cross Country in Lausanne last March, finished an excellent third in Llodio on the heels of Fabian Joseph, the Tanzanian World Half Marathon silver medallist, and Spain’s Juan Carlos de la Ossa. This 27 year-old Spaniard is also a contender for honours this weekend having been the European distance running revelation of the summer. He took ninth place in the 5000m track final at the World Championships in Paris, and in 2003 improved his personal bests for 5000m and 10,000m to 13:20.46 and 28:07.19 (3rd European 10,000m challenge in Athens 12 April) respectively.
With 29 year-old Jose Rios who was 21st in Lausanne, and last year’s European Cross bronze medallist Fabian Roncero also in the Spanish line-up, it would be too strong to say that Carlos de la Ossa was heading the national challenge but any European athlete who can beat the Africans to a podium finish on the lucrative European cross circuit is an obvious candidate for continental medal honours.
Spain and Portugal have each taken three senior men’s team titles over the nine years of the championships and they will again be major players in Edinburgh. France who won the team gold in 2000 and have four-times finished runners-up are also heavily fancied. In the vanguard of their 2003 assault will be last year’s individual silver and 1996 bronze medallist Mustapha Essaid, and El Himer who was the third place finisher in 2000.
Of the other notable runners who are likely to be in the hunt for individual honours, there is the Netherlands’ Simon Vroemen, 34, who is the European 3000m Steeplechase record holder, and the Ukrainian’s Vasyl Matvikchuk and Sergiy Lebid.
Matvikchuk is a fast emerging talent who took the Junior title in 2001, and this year has quietly matured into the senior ranks taking 44th place in Lausanne and recently ran a personal best at Half Marathon of 62.15 in Arezza (1 November).
Lebid inform to defend again
His compatriot Lebid really should need no introduction. Three-times the European winner with a silver (2000) and a bronze (1997) for good measure, the 28 year-old was the silver medallist at the World Cross Country championships in 2001 and if he can reproduce that sort of condition in Edinburgh is unlikely to be beaten to his third consecutive European title.
Though he has not finished at the last two Worlds in Dublin and Lausanne, Lebid has shown signs of recapturing the magic which saw him retain the continental crown in Croatia last December, and then take five impressive circuit victories in Europe early this year. The World Student Games champion at 5000m this August, he also ran a 61:49 personal best for the Half Marathon at the Great North Run in September.
Rybakov brothers set to repeat 2002 triumphs
The junior men’s race reads like a who’s who of the continents current best distance runners. Russia’s Yevgeniy Rybakov returns to defend the title which he won ahead of his brother Anatoliy last year. Anatoliy has since reaffirmed his own championship winning credentials during the summer by taking the European Junior 5000m track gold.
Poland’s Bartosz Nowicki and Marius Ionescu of Romania, respectively the European Junior champions at 1500m and 10,000m will also be in the running for the title.
With the decision of last year’s surprise winner Helena Javornik of Slovenia not to defend her title, there really seems only one name to conjure with when it comes to guessing who will be the recipient of the European women’s gold medal this year - Britain’s Paula Radcliffe. Radcliffe the fastest female marathon runner of all-time, former double World Cross Country champion, and the recent winner of the World Half Marathon title has a running pedigree which no other European can touch.
However, there is no such thing as an outright certainty in Athletics, a fact to which the 29 year-old Briton herself will testify having had to miss the summer’s track season due to injury and illness, and then recently being outpaced by both Berhane Adere (ETH) and Lucy Wangui (KEN) in the opening 10km leg of the Chiba Ekiden relay. As a precaution Radcliffe, who felt exhausted after that race in Japan, didn’t even confirm her participation in Edinburgh until a week ago, so local supporters will be fool hardy to believe in any winning guarantee on Sunday.
Aside from Radcliffe
As well as her individual ambitions Radcliffe, who was European Cross Country champion in 1998, hopes to lead what is a strong overall British squad on to the podium, an ambition also shared by the Irish team who are being led by Catherina McKiernan the winner of this event in 1994, and Sonia O’Sullivan the World short and long course double winner in 1998.
McKiernan who won four World Cross silver medals in the mid-1990's, has recently recaptured something of her previous brilliance and won the EAA permit race in Margate, UK (16 Nov).
The Russians who won the last team title have their silver medal winner from 2002 Galina Bogomolova to show them the way again, and even the Turkish squad could offer a podium threat should last year’s third placer Elvan Abeylegesse inspire her colleagues.
Portugal who were last year’s silver medal winners also have a very well balanced side. which includes Analidia Torre who took individual silver in 2000, Ana Dias who finished 26th in Lausanne, Helena Sampaio the Amsterdam Marathon victor, and Ines Monteiro, who has been third in Torres Vedras, fourth in Llodio and seventh in Oeiras so far this winter.
Ahead of the Portuguese in both Torres Vedras and Oeiras was Hungary’s 26 year-old Aniko Kalovics, whose second place in the former on 23 November, behind Kenya’s Commonwealth 10,000m champion Salina Kosgei, was a particularly impressive run.
There are two other individual representatives who also scream quality, Poland’s Justyna Bak, the former World record holder for the 3000m Steeplechase, and Olivera Jevtic of Serbia and Montenegro who won this year’s Rotterdam Marathon. Both women have already been medallists at the European Cross Country Championships too, Bak taking bronze in 2001 and Jevtic having four third place finishes to her credit (1997-2000).
The hosts also have a second realistic chance of individual gold this weekend, as returning to defend her junior title is Britain’s Charlotte Dale who will face this summer’s European Junior track champions, Inna Polushkina of Latvia (3000m), Italy’s Silvia La Barbera (5000m) and chaser Catalina Oprea of Romania (2000m Steeplechase).