Five Thoughts on the European Cross Country Championships, by Cathal Dennehy

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Cathal Dennehy wrote this thoughtful piece on the 2014 European Championships. By having the events in hard to travel to sites, and allowing elite African athletes to change nationalities, is the EAA hurting the sport of cross country, as the IAAF has done with the World Cross Country? Something to consider....

MenLeaders-EuroXC10.jpg
European Cross Country Championships, 2010, 
photo by PhotoRun.net

By Cathal Dennehy

  • Something needs to change, or this event will soon become irrelevant

The European Cross Country Championships is 20 years old this year, and the question on many people's minds as they watched three athletes born and bred in East Africa dominate the senior men's race on Sunday was this: will it survive another 20?

The race was won by Turkey's Polat Kemboi Arikan, formerly Paul Kipkosgei of  Kenya, who switched allegiance to Turkey in June 2011 and had his eligibility to compete fast-tracked by the IAAF, which allowed him to win the European 10,000m title in the summer of 2012.

In second was fellow Turk Ali Kaya, formerly Stanley Kiprotich of Kenya, who has represented his adopted homeland since early last year and has since won double gold at the European Junior Championships. In third place was Spain's Alemayehu Bezabeh, an Ethiopian-born athlete who has lived in Spain since 2004. Bezabeh has won this event twice before, most famously defeating Mo Farah in Dublin in 2009. He has, incidentally, also served a doping ban. 

It was strange, watching the men's race on Sunday. No matter how open-minded you were, no matter how much you reminded yourself that being 'European' doesn't just refer to those born and raised here, it was hard not to think that this wasn't most people's idea of a European Championship, which brings me to the next point...

  • The biggest issue with athletes changing allegiance is this: they're too good

Here's the thing: of all the people making negative comments about the three medallists on Sunday, offering their opinions on social media and elsewhere about how allowing naturalised European citizens to compete here is killing the event - the main issue they have is this: they're too damn good. 

One need only look at the World Cross Country these days to know that East Africans, on the whole, are vastly superior to the Europeans at cross country and that, in the end, is what it comes down to. If an athlete such as Arikan came 50th on Sunday, there would be few, if any, detractors. When he comes first, and looks from the start to be running in an entirely different race to the home-grown Europeans, it starts to become an issue. 

Where do you draw the line, though? Is Bezabeh, who has lived and trained in Spain for 10 years now, okay, but Arikan, who has only been a Turk for two, not? How about Kevin Batt, who finished 31st; he was born in Australia to Irish parents and lived there most of his life. He represented Australia internationally in 2010 - but switched allegiance to Ireland this year and became eligible for events such as the European Cross Country. Where does his case fall on the welcome/unwelcome spectrum?

That's the thing. There's no right answer here, no black and white, just various shades of grey. Steve Cram, commentating for the BBC on Sunday, said: "There's this issue of transferees in the European Championships. We've got to make sure we're strong on this, as strong as other sports. You need a stronger commitment over time to your new country before you compete for them."

Paula Radcliffe was in agreement, adding: "I'm not sure that's the case with the Turkish athletes. You've seen it with Bahrain where there are allegations of going out and buying a team, and we can't have that."

Commentating for Irish television, Sonia O'Sullivan was equally vocal that something has to change. "Countries buying athletes takes a lot of the gloss away from the European Championships," she said. "It's not fair to call it the Euros and to so easily allow African athletes come and decide which country they're going to run for. It's fine if you're born here, or if you come here as a child and go to school here, but if you turn up already as an athlete, usually you're just going for monetary benefit."


  • Gemma Steel: an athlete with an iron will

It would make sense, wouldn't it, that Gemma Steel - the 29-year-old Briton who had previously finished second and third in the senior women's event - would finally grab that elusive gold medal with a performance so gutsy and resolute that she lived up to her name on a freezing afternoon in Samokov. 

It was just past halfway in the senior women's race that the clutch of leading athletes was reduced to two: Great Britain's Kate Avery and Steel. Avery, who just three weeks ago took the NCAA D1 Cross Country title in Terre Haute, wasn't expected to challenge as formidably for the gold as she did, but she proved one extremely tough nut for Steel to crack.

The British pair took turns attacking each other over the closing two laps, all the time drawing clear of previous champions Sophie Duarte and Fionnuala Britton, but neither gave an inch. On the turn for home, it looked like Avery was about to complete her dream cross country season, surging out to a five-metre lead,  but Steel dug in, clawed her way back to Avery's shoulder, and got past just in the shadow of the finish. It took an iron will to do what she did, and Steel showed today she had that in abundance. 

  • Pity the athlete who mis-counts the laps

You're Aleksandr Novikov, you're 19 years old, and as you turn into the home straight with a considerable lead, about to win a European junior title, life is just swell. Until, that is, just metres from the finish, you hear people roaring at you in panic, telling you the most horrific news that an athlete suffering blinding fatigue could ever be told: you've got another lap to run. 

Novikov quickly turned around, got himself back on course still in the lead, but the moment Italy's eventual champion Yemaneberhan Crippa passed him, you could sense the energy and spirit drain from his body and mind in an instant. Crippa powered on to win, and had a considerable 15 seconds to spare over Spain's Carlos Mayo at the finish, but as for poor old Novikov, he slid all the way down to 55th over that last kilometre. 

Perhaps the course adjustment on the eve of the race threw off Novikov's awareness of the lap count, perhaps the Russian teenager should really have known anyway how long he had left, but either way, you had to feel for him. First to 55th, elated to exhausted, embarrassed... all in the space of a 1200m lap. Sport is cruel sometimes. 

  • Samokov: really, European Athletics?

Whatever about the former East Africans monopolizing the medals in some events, if the European Cross Country is to survive and thrive as an event, then more consideration needs to be given to its venue. Granted, potential hosts of events are thin on the ground these days, but surely there could have been a more accessible, more popular option than Samokov. 

After all, Samokov is a relatively remote ski town with a population of 30,000 in southwest Bulgaria, not exactly a country with a rich cross country heritage or where the sport has much of a public interest. They had one athlete in the top 20 on Sunday, although that did happen to be a silver medal through Militsa Mircheva in the women's under-23 race. 

There were some complaints about the course, which had to be adjusted as late as Saturday due to dangerous underfoot conditions, though in general cross country is a sport which can, and should, occasionally be run on undulating, inconvenient, often brutal conditions - whatever they happen to be on that given day. The beauty of cross country is its geographical flexibility, along with the resulting unpredictability. 

However, for this event to stay relevant, it should as often as possible be sent to places more  accessible both for international travellers and potential fans from the host country. Next year, it's set to be hosted in Paray-le-Monial, a small town of 9,000 in Burgundy, France. The year after that, it's headed to Chia, a tiny municipality on the Island of Sardinia, Italy. Nice places, sure, but how many will be in attendance? 

Again, we're left with questions, and no definitive answers. Will the European Cross Country survive? Surely. Will it thrive? Who knows. 


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