San Giorgio su Legnano, ItalyAs Europe turns its attention to this weekend’s 13th edition of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships, the primary question to be answered on Sunday (10) is this: Can anyone end Sergiy Lebid’s reign as the continent’s undisputed King of Cross Country?
While a record 509 athletes – 275 men and 243 women – from 30 countries will compete this weekend, it will be the 31-year-old Ukrainian’s bid for a sixth consecutive title – and seventh overall – that will captivate the attention of the large crowd expected to attend the six races at the Sports Centre Angelo Alberti in this small town in west Lombardy, about 20 kilometres from Milan.
Men’s Senior Race - The battle to dethrone the King
Nothing short of an institution in European cross country running, Lebid has raced in each of the 12 previous editions of the championships, half of which he has won: first in 1998 before taking the last five. Indeed, if there’s anything in the least bit predictable about Sunday’s championships, it’s that the 31-year-old, who also raced to silver in 2000 and bronze in 1997, will arrive on the start line extremely well prepared.
As has now become his routine, Lebid prepared for his first outing of the winter with a high-altitude training stint in the Caucasus Mountains near Kislovodsk, Russia. His dominating performances the previous two years provided ample evidence that a lack of racing sharpness obviously didn’t dull his racing ability. In the 2004 race in Heringsdorf, Germany, he won by a whopping 26 seconds; last year he produced a comfortable 12 second margin of victory.
This year, the challenge to Lebid’s supremacy will be led by 23-year-old Mo Farah, who is aiming to become only the second Briton to claim an individual title. The first and last was Jon Brown, the winner in 1996. The Somali-born Farah, who took 5000m silver in a close race at last summer’s European Championships, out-sprinted Kenyan Micah Kogo at the Cross de L’Acier in Leffrinckroucke, France on 26 November, to show he’s well prepared to take on Lebid in San Giorgio su Legnano. Kogo, Farah’s training partner and housemate, was this year’s fastest man over 10,000m.
At 37, Driss Maazouzi may be the second oldest to toe the line on Sunday, but as a two-time defending bronze medallist, the Frenchman must be considered as a serious podium threat. In his lone major outing prior to the championships, he finished just out of the top-ten at the Cross National le Maine Libre in Allones, France, on 19 November.
Juan Carlos De La Ossa, the runner-up in 2003 and 2004, returns to lead a strong Spanish squad with ambitions to end France’s three year run as team champions. The silver medallist behind Lebid in 2003 and 2004, he was a disappointing ninth last year after being spiked midway through the race. While hamstring and back problems may have affected his build-up this autumn, he has performed admirably on the international circuit thus far this season, most recently with a sixth place finish – and the first European – at the Cross Internacional de la Constitucion in Alcobendas last Sunday. A week earlier he was seventh at the Llodio IAAF Permit race, also the first among Europeans.
Jose Manuel “Chema” Martinez, who won silver in the 10,000m at August’s European Championships, joins de la Ossa on a strong Spanish team. The 35-year-old has raced sparingly thus far, but did produce a fifth place showing at the Cross Internacional de Soria last month.
One of the biggest surprises at last year’s championship was produced by Swede Johanna Nilsson in the senior women's race, who just two weeks after winning the U.S. collegiate title, bounced back with an impressive bronze medal showing in Tilburg. This year in the men's senior competition, Irishman Martin Fagan, who competes for Providence, hopes to preserve the form that led him to a fifth place finish at last month’s NCAA championships.
Women’s Senior Race - Wide open!
Unlike the men's senior race, no female medallists from 2005 will be returning. And with few competitions under their belts this year, the race is wildly unpredictable.
Among the favourites on paper is Russian Inga Abitova, the surprise winner of last summer’s European 10,000m title. Most recently a member of the Russian runner-up squad at the Chiba Ekiden, the 24-year-old was seventh last year in Tilburg, leading the Russian women to the team title.
Fourth last year, Olivera Jevtic returns as last year’s leading finisher. Known primarily as a marathoner these days – the 29-year-old was second in Gothenburg in August – the Serbian took four consecutive bronze medals in the continental championship beginning in 1997. A fierce competitor, Jevtic was fourth in last month’s Tokyo International Ladies Marathon.
Hungary’s Aniko Kalovics has gradually become one of Europe’s leading racers on the road, but has also produced several fine performances in cross country over the past several seasons, and should also be in the hunt. The bronze medallist in 2003 and fifth last year, the 29-year-old finished a respectable third late last month in Llodio, just a month after making – and winning – her marathon debut in Carpi.
After a pair of back-to-back runner-up finishes in the team race, Jo Pavey will be looking to help return the British women back to the podium top step for just the second time.
The continent’s fastest 5000m runner on the track for two years running, Pavey prepped for the race with a commanding win at the British trials two weeks ago, where she battled horrendously muddy conditions. The 33-year-old was the bronze medallist in 2004.
Joining Pavey is Hayley Yelling, the surprise winner in 2004. After winning a pair of domestic races, Yelling struggled in her last outing, where she finished a distant seventh in Llodio.
Junior races – Rematch on the women’s side
Defending champion Ancuta Bobocel of Romania will aim to become the first back-to-back women’s junior winner. Bobucel, 19, who is the continent’s junior record holder in the 3000m Steeplechase, moved up a notch from her runner-up finish in 2004 with a narrow two-second victory over Briton Emily Pidgeon last year. Last month, the Romanian took top honours at the Omer Besim Memorial EAA Permit race in Istanbul, winning the senior 8 km race by 38 seconds.
Pidgeon, still only 17, will be aiming to make amends in the chase for individual honours after leading the British junior women to the team title last year. She’ll be joined by another 17-year-old, Stephanie Twell, a finalist at 1500m at August’s World Junior Championships in Beijing. At last month’s British trials, Twell upset Pidgeon winning by nine seconds.
Another rising star in 18-year-old Azra Eminovic of Serbia, the fastest European in Beijing in August, where she finished sixth.
After four years of back-to-back winner, the only certainty in the men’s junior race is that a new champion will be crowned. Among the favourites is 19-year-old Spaniard Mohamed Elbenadir, who was fourth last year.
Mugdat Ozturk of Turkey, the reigning European junior champion in the 10,000, could also be a factor. Last month he was third at the Omer Besim Memorial EAA Permit race in Istanbul. Algerian-born Noureddine Smail of France was a finalist in the 5000 in Beijing, finishing eighth. Laszlo Toth has his sights set on picking up where Barnabas Bene left off last year, by keeping the title in Hungary. In August, he was eighth in the 3000m Steeplechase in Beijing.
New this year – Under-23 competition
To ease the transition between junior and senior competition, a pair of Under-23 races have been added to the programme this year, which not surprisingly look to be the domain for a slew of former junior champions.
Among the favourites in the men's U23 race is Hungary's Barnabas Bene, who last year successfully defended his continental junior title. The 20-year-old is adjusting well to senior competition, with several top-ten finishes in road and cross country races. Russian Anatoliy Rybakov, whom Bene upset at the 2004 junior race, is also a former two-time junior champion. The 21-year-old was fourth at the Russian national championships in October, won by his twin brother Yevgeniy, who twice finished second to Anatoliy in junior races at the European championships. Dusan Markesevic of Serbia also returns after his bronze medal showing in the junior race last year.
Binnaz Uslu took the women’s junior title in 2004 for Turkey, and is expected to fare much better here than she did in last year’s senior race, where she came home 28th. Primarily a 1500m runner, the shorter distance certainly fits the 21-year-old. Adelina De Soccio, the reigning continental 3000m champion, is the host nation’s leading candidate for a medal. Still only 20, De Soccio was a respectable fourth at the Cross Valle Del Chiese, her first race since last summer’s national championships on the track, while Volha Minina of Belarus, fourth and fifth in the 2003 and 2004 junior races, is aiming to become her country’s first medallist.
The Championships will be held in Italy for the second time. In 1998, when Ferrara played host, Sergey Lebid won his first title, and Briton Paula Radcliffe won the first of her two. Competition begins at 11:00 with the junior women's race, and concludes with the senior men's competition at 14:45.
The forecast for Sunday is favourable, calling for clear, sunny skies and temperatures between 5 and 8 C.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
On the path to Mombasa 2007
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