Gulnara Galkina, the inaugural women's Olympic 3000m steeplechase champion (Getty Images) © Copyright

European Cross Country Championships - PREVIEW

Gulnara Galkina, Russia’s Olympic gold medallist and World record holder in the Steeplechase, and seven-time winner Sergiy Lebid of Ukraine will be the most prominent athletes in Sunday’s 15th SPAR European Cross Country Championships, which are held in Brussels’ Parc de Laeken (14 Dec).

There will be plenty of prominent opposition for those two principals. The Parc de Laeken was the venue of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2004 as well. Originally the European Cross Country Championships were to be held in Ostend, but because of flooding problems in the spring the city was no longer able to stage the event. Brussels jumped into host the 15th edition of the continental championships.

A record number of 482 athletes from a record number of 32 countries have confirmed their entry for the 15th SPAR European Cross Country Championships which take place in the beautiful Parc de Laeken in the Belgian capital of Brussels this Sunday.

The competition which was first held in Alnwick in the north of England in 1994 has grown from strength to strength since an initial field of 180 senior athletes lined up for the first edition of the championships. Two years later, in 1996 in Charleroi, a junior men’s and women’s race was introduced and two years ago in San Giorgio su Legnano in Italy the U23 category was introduced with immediate success.

The record number of countries had previously been set in Malmo, Sweden in 2000 when 31 countries participated and this year 32 countries will take part in the event.

MEN - Lebid going for number eight

Of the fourteen editions of the European Cross Country Championships Sergiy Lebid has won exactly half of them. He now wants to go for the majority again in Brussels. Additionally, the 33 year-old has so far participated in every edition of these championships, which is another unique achievement. After some injury problems during the summer season, Brussels will be the first race in this cross country season for Lebid.

A year ago there had been high expectations regarding a clash between Lebid and Britain’s Mo Farah. The 25 year-old had broken Lebid’s reign two year ago, when he took the gold in the Euro cross, while the Ukrainian trailed to eleventh place. But in Toro, Spain, a year ago Farah could not compete due to an injury. While the duel did not materialise Lebid was back winning. This Sunday the champions of the last two years will finally meet in the 10k race.

But there are a number of other runners in the field who could upset Lebid and Farah. Sweden’s Mustafa Mohamed, the Steeplechase specialist who was tenth in the Olympic Final in Beijing, is among those. He was the runner-up behind Lebid a year ago. Maybe Martin Fagan of Ireland, who was seventh in Toro in 2007, can also play a role. The French will travel to Brussels with a very strong men’s team. Among them are El Hassan Lahssini, who was eighth in Toro, Mokhtar Benhari (15th in 2007), Steeplechaser Bob Tahri and experienced Driss El Himer, who is the third fastest European marathon runner ever with a personal best of 2:06:48.

Spain is of course another traditionally strong cross country nation. A Spaniard originating from Ethiopia might well be able to steal the show. 22-year-old Alemayehu Bezabeh obtained Spanish citizenship in July and then turned out to be the best European runner in the Olympic 5000m final. He placed eleventh in Beijing and has shown fine cross country form recently.

WOMEN - Galkina goes for number one

The biggest running star in Brussels will be a woman: Gulnara Galkina wrote sports history in Beijing, when she not only became the first Olympic women gold medallist in the steeple but additionally broke the nine minute barrier. The 30-year-old clocked 8:58.81 after an astonishing performance in such a final. Having been a world-class 5000m runner before switching to the steeple Galkina should be able to do really well in the 8k cross country event on Sunday.

While the defending champion Marta Dominguez of Spain will be absent from Brussels four former champions will be in the race.

When Lebid missed out two years ago it was Tetyana Holovchenko, who stepped in for Ukraine and took the women’s gold. A year ago she had to be content with 15th place though. The women’s event has provided a couple of surprises in recent years. One of those happened in Heringsdorf (Germany) in 2004, when Britain’s Hayley Yelling snatched the gold. She will be lining up on Sunday as well.

The third former champion is Finland’s Sandell-Hyvärinen, 31, who won the championships in 1995 when an 18-year-old. After many seasons of injuries the Finn, the 1999 World XC short course bronze medallist, is returning to form and took the Nordic title last month. The fourth past winner on show is France's Yamna Oubouhou (Belkacem), 34, who took the title in 2001.

Spain’s Rosa Morató, who took the bronze medal in front of her home crowd a year ago, will be trying to keep the title in Spain and follow Dominguez, while another one to watch will be Hilda Kibet. The former Kenyan, who became a Dutch citizen in 2007, was fifth in the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh this March and has done well on the roads this year. In the 10,000m she was third in the European Cup and 15th in the Olympic final.

MEN - U23 and Junior Races

The two men’s junior races – the under 23 year-old athletes will run 8, the juniors will run 6km – are difficult to predict. In the older category Italy’s Andrea Lalli and Britain’s Andy Vernon might be in with a good chance of winning the title. Lalli had won the junior race two years ago while Vernon was third in the U23 race in Toro 2008. Mourad Amdouni (France) and Dmytro Lashyn (Ukraine) may also play a role. Amdouni had won the junior race in Toro while Lashyn took the bronze in that event in 2008. Among the juniors in Brussels there will be two who have done very well in Toro: France’s Florian Carvalho was second in 2007 while Britain’s David Forrester took fourth.

WOMEN - U23 and Junior Races

In much contrast to the junior men there will be two big favourites in the two junior women races in Parc de Laeken on Sunday. Romania’s Ancuta Bobocel will come to Brussels to defend her title in the 6km race of the under 23 year-olds. Britain’s Stephanie Twell is expected to continue her European Cross Country success story by completing a hat-trick in the juniors’ race. She had won the gold in 2006 and 2007. The silver and bronze medallists from Toro will be in the 4k race again as well: Danuta Urbanik (Poland/2) and Charlotte Purdue (Great Britain/3).

Jörg Wenig for the IAAF