11 DEC 2009 Preview

Lebid going for number nine, Augusto for number one – European XC Champs, PREVIEW

Sergiy Lebid  (UKR) wins the 2008 European XC men's race (Mark Shearman)Sergiy Lebid (UKR) wins the 2008 European XC men's race (Mark Shearman) © Copyright

Dublin, IrelandThe host country Ireland surely belongs to those European countries where cross country running is at its best regarding tradition and interest. So European Athletics could hardly have chosen a better venue than Dublin for the 16th Spar European Cross Country Championships, which will take place at Santry Park at the northern boundaries of the Irish capital on Sunday (13).

Although Ireland has already hosted the World Cross Country Championships it will be the first time that the continental championships will be staged on the island.

Meanwhile the star of the championships comes from the other side of the European continent: Ukraine’s Sergiy Lebid intends to further add to his unique collection of gold medals in this event. So far he has won eight of the 15 men’s races. While Lebid must be regarded as the favourite at his specialist event, Britain’s Mo Farah could be the one to deny the Ukrainian.

While Sergiy Lebid will target gold number nine Portugal’s Jessica Augusto intends to take the women’s race for the first time. She had won the silver behind Hilda Kibet in Brussels a year ago. But since the defending champion from the Netherlands will be absent on Sunday Jessica Augusto is seen as the favourite.

Ireland’s best hopes come with Martin Fagan, Alistair Cragg and Mary Cullen. While there was heavy rainfall in late November in Dublin the forecast suggests that Sunday will be a dry but cool day. However since the ground is still soft the course may well become quite muddy.

Preview of the men’s race

Sergiy Lebid has not featured on any results list since a respectable fourth place in the 10k race of Giro al Sas’ in Trento two months ago. He was the best European in that race in Italy. If he was able to build well on that he should be in peak form at the European Cross Country Championships once again and could take another gold medal. No one could be surprised if he would do it a ninth time. “The European Cross Country Championship is my event. Of course I will come back and want to win it again,” Lebid had stated a year ago after winning in Brussels.

So who may be able to stop the 34-year-old on the loop course in Santry Park this Sunday, which measures exactly 9.997km? Britain’s Mo Farah had been closest a year ago and once again looks to be the strongest challenger. He was eight seconds behind in Brussels but had no answer then to Lebid’s powerful surge on the final couple of hundred metres.

Farah knows how to beat Lebid – but the question is if he can do it in cross country when the Ukrainian is at his best? Farah did beat him in the European Cross Country Championships when he took the title in 2006, but Lebid had problems that day finishing only 11th. Farah leads the head to heads statistics with Lebid by 5 to 4. And this year he beat him on the road (London 10km in May) and on the track (5000m at the European Team Championships in Leiria in June). But a possible muddy cross country race is different. Mo Farah’s last race should give him quite some confidence though: On 25th October he won the Portsmouth 10 mile event with 46:25 despite the weather being not ideal.

Steeplechase specialist Mustafa Mohamed has done well in cross country as well. The Swede took the bronze medal a year ago so that the top three from Brussels will return to Dublin. While former Ethiopian Alemayehu Bezabeh (Spain), who took seventh in 2008 and then placed 31st at the World Cross Country Championships this March, will also be in with a chance it will be interesting to see how Italy’s Andrea Lalli will cope. He had dominated last year’s Under-23 event and has opted for the senior’s race although he is only 22.

In front of a home crowd may be one of the Irish stars can produce a surprise. Martin Fagan has proved earlier this year that he has good stamina, when he improved his half marathon best to a fine 60:57 minutes. Alistair Cragg, who has been stronger on the shorter distances, is the other Irish hope in the race.

Preview of the women’s race

Jessica Augusto’s target is obvious: She wants to improve by just one place, but that is the hardest of all steps since it is about the gold medal. Coming in second in Brussels in 2008 the Portugese said she feels a bit like the winner, “because I am the first European girl home”. She was refering to former Kenyan Hilda Kibet, who took the gold for the Netherlands. There will be no such feelings on Sunday since the defending champion has not been entered for this year’s championships.

But there could well be more to come from Potugal’s squad for Dublin. Ines Monteiro had already taken the bronze medal in Brussels and will be eager to get another medal. Additionally Dulce Felix, who has set a number of personal bests this year, and Ana Dias should be in the fight for the medals as well. It will get tough on the 8.018km course for Ireland’s Mary Cullen, who had taken fourth place a year ago and then went on to take a bronze at the European Indoors in March in the 3000m final. But the home support could give Mary Cullen the little extra needed to snatch a medal.

Two former European Cross Country gold medallists will be in the field: Britain’s Hayley Yelling (2004) and Tetyana Holovchenko (Ukraine/2006). Additionally the woman who has won most medals in the history of the event will start in Dublin: Olivera Jevtic (Serbia) has taken five medals, all of them of the same colour! She was third in 1997, ’98, ’99, ’00 and ’06.

Last year among a team of Russian runners there was Gulnara Galkina, the Olympic Steeple Chase Champion. She finally faded to 12th on the muddy ground. Russia used to do better in former years, but this time however the Russians decided not to send any athletes for the men’s and women’s senior races.

Preview of the Junior and Under 23 Races

Andrea Lalli would have been the big favourite again had he opted to run the Under 23 Race one last time but since the Italian will go for the seniors’ event Mohamed Elbendir (Spain) and Selim Bayrak (Turkey) are the possible gold medal candidates. Elbenir took the U23 European Championships race at 5000m while Bayrak won the 10,000m at this event in the summer. Britain’s world class triathlete Alistair Brownlee could be in with a surprise at his first international race in athletics.

The women’s U23 event will see three-time European Junior Champion Stephanie Twell (Great Britain) for the first time. After Twell took the Gateshead Cross Country in November she looks in form for continuing her golden win streak in the European Cross Country Championships. Fellow British runner Hannah England and Turkey’s U23 1500 m Euro Champion Sultan Haydar could be up there as well.

In the Junior Races we might see a unique success for Norway. Sondre Nordstad Moen took second place in Brussels and is now seen as the best bet for gold. Spain’s Antonio Abadia may be his strongest rival. In the Junior Women’s Race Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal could become Stephanie Twell’s successor. While the British girls famously took the first six places in last year’s event their bronze medallist from Brussels is again in the race: Lauren Howarth could play a part as well.

Jörg Wenig for the IAAF