Toro, SpainLast year the question on everyone’s lips on the eve of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships was something like: can anyone dethrone Ukraine’s Sergiy Lebid? And the answer after the event was rather surprising as up to eleven athletes bettered Lebid’s performance. This year the primary question turns to: Can Lebid regain his supremacy on the European XC scene at this weekend’s 14th edition of the Championships?
A living legend who has contested all the previous editions with a huge tally of six gold medals, one silver and one bronze, the 32-year-old Ukrainian’s bid for a seventh overall crown will captivate the attention of the large crowd expected to attend the six races at the “Monte La Reina” circuit in this small town in northwest Spain, famous for its wine, about 230 kilometres from Madrid.
Men’s Senior Race – Lebid versus Spain?
Unusually in the history of the Championships, none of last year’s top-three finishers from San Giorgio su Legnano will be in contention to defend their awards, as Britain’s reigning champion Mo Farah has sustained a groin injury, Portugal’s Fernando Silva faces a two-year ban and Spain’s Juan Carlos de la Ossa has also withdrawn hampered by a left foot injury.
But the absence of the three-time silver medallist De la Ossa will be extremely well compensated by his in-form fellow Spaniards Alberto García, José Manuel ‘Chema’ Martínez and Jesús España. The three of them will bid for becoming the first Spanish athlete to strike individual gold at this event. A former (2002) European 5000m champion García missed voluntarily the track summer season to focus solely in Toro, in an attempt to reproduce his 2005 silver medal in Tilburg when Lebid declared - despite a 12-second winning margin - that it had been his most difficult win.
Martínez and España have also planned to peak for this Sunday’s race in the hope that performing on Spanish soil – with the support of the home crowd – will be a decisive advantage to make the podium. The top Spaniards faced each other a fortnight ago in the IAAF permit in Soria where García dominated Martínez by 10 seconds while the reigning European 10,000m silver medallist built another 10 seconds margin over España, the current European 5000m champion.
In sharp contrast, Lebid will barely have Ihor Heletiy for company in the Ukrainian squad. Loyal to his tactic the Ukrainian will make his cross country debut this year at the championships, a plan which has paid off over the last years apart from 2006 when he explained that stomach pains had sidelined his performance.
Other athletes not to be discounted for the medal positions are three top steeplechasers in the guise of Sweden’s Mustafa Mohamed, Turkey’s Halil Akkas and Belgium’s Pieter Desmet. This triumvirate could well take advantage of the 9 artificial barriers per loop (63 overall) laid down throughout the circuit. Mohamed who was rewarded with the bronze medal last year, was the first non African (11th)at the L’Alcier permit on 25 November after completing his best ever track campaign topped by an excellent 8:05.75 performance to come just 0.80 outside Simon Vroemen’s European record.
Hakkas (PB of 8:18.43) and Desmet (8:15.02) have enjoyed recent XC home successes in Istanbul (18 Nov) and Roeselare (25) respectively. France’s El Hassan Lahssini and the Portuguese pair of Olympic 1500m bronze medallist Rui Silva and Rui Pedro Silva, the only other top-ten finisher (6th) entrant from last year should be dangerous outsiders.
Women’s Senior Race – Unprecedented double in a row for Holovchenko?
Unlike the men's senior race, not only last year’s three medallists but also the top-six athletes from 2006 will be returning. However, the main favourites have not raced so far this cross country season which makes it a quite unpredictable outcome for Sunday’s event. On a statistical note Ukraine’s Tetyana Holovchenko has the chance of becoming the first senior woman to successfully defend her title. The Ukrainian took a highly unexpected two-second win in San Giorgio su Legnano from Russia’s Mariya Konovalova.
Defending champion Holovchenko focused her summer campaign on the 1500m event where she didn’t advance to the Osaka final three weeks after claiming silver at the World University Games in Bangkok. Although far from impressive times, the 27-year-old lowered her track PBs to 15:26.88 (5000m) and 31:59.98 (10,000m). As for the 33-year-old Konovalova –a 7th placer at 5000m at the Seville 1999 Worlds - she came a respectable 11th in Osaka’s 5000m.
But the medal record holder for the Europeans is Serbia’s European Marathon silver medallist Olivera Jevtic. Exactly ten years after clinching the first of her five bronze medals at the event Jevtic will be looking to go a step higher on the podium. The in-form Hungarian Aniko Kalovics and France’s Julie Coulaud – with respective victories in Tilburg (11 Nov) and Sud Ouest (25 Nov) – will also be in the medal hunt as will Britain’s former (2004) champion Hayley Yelling, fresh from a convincing win at the UK European trials in Liverpool two weeks ago.
To add more drama, Spain’s reigning European 5000m champion Marta Domínguez is also part of the line-up. The 32-year-old star will be making her debut in the SPAR European Cross Country Championships. She has only one race under her belt this winter, a convincing win in the Quintanar permit (11 November). An accomplished 3000m indoor performer over the last decade, Domínguez will have strong support from the stands in her new and motivating challenge. This circumstance joint to her well-known competitiveness could well provide her a medal position to add to her two continental 5000m golds.
Under-23 races – Wide open
The general consensus of the inaugural races for the under-23 age group held last year only as a ‘demonstration events’ was overwhelmingly positive and with two well-renowned athletes – Hungary’s Barnabas Bene and Turkey’s Binnaz Uslu - winning over packed fields the European Athletics Association has made this under-23 category part of this year’s official programme.
The men’s event will be partially marked by the absence of Hungary’s Barnabas Bene, who took not only the 2006 U23 title but also the Junior men's gold medals in the previous two years.
In his absence through injury sustained in the summer and subsequent below-par form, the event seems to be wide open with Serbia’s Dusko Markesevic, runner-up last year and the Russian twin brothers Yevgeniy and Anatoly Rybakov as theoretical men to beat. Yevgeniy will be looking to match his Junior titles from 2002 and 2003 but one of his toughest rivals will be Anatoly who snatched the European U-23 10,000 title in Debrecen last July. On that occasion Russia’s Andrey Safronov and Michel Butter of the Netherlands managed silver medals in the 5000m and 10,000m respectively, performances which put them in this Sunday’s medal picture along with the reigning Junior champion Andrea Lalli of Italy.
The star names in the women’s section are Romania’s 2005 Junior champion Ancuta Bobocel, fresh from a fantastic win in Roeselare two weeks ago, Belarus’s European U-23 10,000m champion Volha Minina and Poland's Katarzyna Kowalska, who also claimed gold in Debrecen in the 3000m steeplechase. The Dutch pair of US-based Susan Kuijken and Adrienne Herzog are the other contenders not to be ruled out for podium finishes.
Junior races – Twell to strike again on the women’s side
Ukraine’s Dmytro Lashyn could well be regarded as the hot favourite after his emphatic 10,000m win in the European Junior championships held last summer in Hengelo. Sixth last year in San Giorgio, the young Ukrainian seems to follow in his countryman Lebid’s successful footsteps. Lashyn takes on France’s Mourad Amdouni, who took gold in Hengelo over 5000m and Spain’s Mohamed Elbendir, runner-up behind the Frenchman in Hengelo. Romania’s Ciprian Suhanea is the only medallist from last year in the line-up and is looking for finishing higher. Completing a classy bunch of athletes in the medal hunt will be the German duo of reigning European Junior 10,000m silver medallist Matti Markowski and Alexander Hahn, a top-ten finisher last year.
The mighty Britain squad has dominated the Junior scene over the last years both individually and by teams. 18-year-old Stephanie Twell, who claimed silver at the European Juniors over 1500m, and Emily Pidgeon are its leading athletes and while the former took honours last year Pidgeon was runner-up in 2005, both contributing decisively to their country’s success. Still eligible for next year’s championships the Briton pair should be aware of Norway's reigning European Junior 3000m steeplechase silver medallist Kristine Eikrem Engerset, Turkey’s Hulya Ongun, recent winner in Istanbul and the always powerful Russian contingent led by Viktoriya Ivanova, fifth last year.
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF
On the path to Edinburgh 2008
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