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Two golds for Ukraine in 8th European Cross Country Championships

Two Golds for Ukraine in Thun
Mark Butler for the IAAF
9 December 2001 – Thun, Switzerland - Two Ukrainians and two transplanted Africans took gold away from the 8th European Cross Country Championships held on Sunday in Switzerland’s “City of the Alps”, Thun.

The course at the Allmend Military base was set in the shadow of the Eiger (3970m), but unfortunately this mountainous backdrop was obscured by mist.  However, in every other respect, conditions were perfect for the event. It was still, cold, but not freezing, and the course was fast with a couple of small hills.

In odd years the Junior men’s title traditionally goes to one who has already become a European track champion the previous summer. This time the first two places went to winners from Grosseto last August.

Britain’s 5000m Champion Mohamed Farah was prominent on the first of the four laps of 1500m. Ireland’s William Harty forced the pace in the second, then the third, four men got away, Farah, the Romanian pair of Mircea Bogdan and Cosmin Suteu, and the European Junior Champion at 10,000m, Vasyl Matviychuk of the Ukraine. At the start of the final circuit, the bleached-haired Ukrainian was in front and he gradually pulled clear. Farah gave chase but never looked like closing the gap. Matviychuk, only 86th in the corresponding race last year, won easily from the Briton, who had the consolation of leading his country to team golds. Farah will be young enough to try again at next year’s Championships in Croatia. 

Another Grosseto gold medallist triumphed in the two-lap junior women’s race. The Ethiopian-born Turk Elvan Abeylegesse already has European Junior titles at 3000m and 5000m this year, and she wasted no time in going for a third gold by racing through the first of two laps (1500m) in 4:47. Later, the senior women clocked 4:54 at the same point in their race. As one might a expect from a 15:21.12 5000m performer, Abeylegesse kept up the tempo and had all but finished the race before the rest of the field had entered the 150m homestraight. In second place, Tatyana Chulakh of Russia moved up two positions from last year. Her country also provided the bronze medallist (Inga Abitova) and scored a commanding team victory. 

Abeylegesse is a statistician’s nightmare. When she finished 9th in Ethiopian colours at the 1999 Worlds, we knew her as Hewan Abeye. After her transition to Turkey, she became (Mrs) Elvan Can, but now she has reverted to another Ethiopian version of her original name. Clearly, she has the capability to cause an upset at next year’s European Championships in Stuttgart.

Word from the Portuguese was that Paulo Guerra had aimed his training at the 2002 World Championships in Dublin and would not be in shape to win a fifth European title in the senior men’s race. This proved to be correct, and while Guerra wound up 10th, Sergey Lebed added handsomely to his own glittering record in this race. The Ukrainian won in Ferrara in 1998 and after that race moved his training base to Lombardy, a three-hour drive from Thun.

In the past, Lebed had perhaps held back until too late in races, but he was well-placed at the start of this six-lap race. By the end of the second lap, the tall Dutchman Kamiel Maase  moved up and accumulated a lead of 20m. Lebed and  Frenchman El Hassan Lahssini led the chasers, but it was Lebed alone who reeled in Maase by lap four. The Ukrainian steadily opened up a gap, five seconds at the end of the fourth then seven by the fifth. Given Lebed’s reputation for a strong finish, attention switched to the battle for the silver. Maase held on well but the competition for the bronze was fierce. Steeplechaser Antonio Jiménez took the medal and helped Spain overtake France for the team title.

The home crowd’s cow-bells chimed louder than ever as Christian Belz sprinted into fifth place, much the best performance of the day by a Swiss. In the meantime, Lebed had spent much of the finishing straight waving at the crowd while keeping his legs moving remarkably quickly. “I thought if anyone was going to catch me, they would have to be fast,” concluded Maase, adding in reference to Lebed: “He was.”

Matviychuk, Abeylegesse and Lebed were all predictable winners, and it was no surprise that the women’s title went to Yamna Belkacem. The Moroccan-born Frenchwoman was the second European finisher after Paula Radcliffe in the long race at Ostend last March. She first hit the front on the second of the race’s three laps along with another blue-vested runner, Olga Romanova of Russia. By the end of that lap those two plus Yugoslavia’s Olivera Jevtic and Poland’s world steeplechase record holder Justyna Bak had got clear of the pack. Approaching the final straight Jevtic was dropped. Belkacem - her hair bunched unto four pigtails - led with Romanova and Bak poised to strike. However, the Frenchwoman held on grimly to win.  Jevtic’s fourth place was a good result even though it meant the end of her string of bronze medals in these championships  at four. The winner was watched by her husband, international steeplechaser Henri Balkacem, her younger sister Fatiha Oubouhou and her coach of two months, Richard Descoux. Portugal, with four in the first 18, won team race.

Guest of honour at the championships was André Bucher, who the previous evening in Berne had been voted Swiss Sports Personality of the year by a huge margin.

Leading results
Men (9510m)
1, Sergey Lebed UKR 27:52
2, Kamiel Maase NED 28:05
3, Antonio Jiménez  ESP 28:10 

1, Spain 40
2, France 50
3, Portugal 72

Junior Men (6150m)
1, Vasyl Matviychuk UKR 19:29
2, Mohamed Farah GBR 19:38
3, Stefano Scaini ITA 19:39

1, Great Britain & NI 54
2, Portugal 67
3, France 68 

Women (4650m)
1, Yamna Belkacem FRA 15:48
2, Olga Romanova RUS 15:49
3, Justyna Bak POL 15:51

1, Portugal 41
2, Great Britain & NI 49
3, France 65

Junior Women  (3150m)
1, Elvan Abeylegesse TUR 10:35
2, Tatyana Chulakh RUS 10:53
3, Inga Abitova RUS 11:02

1, Russia 35
2, Great Britain & NI 54
3, Turkey 79

Full results can be found at: