Yasmin Can wins European Cross Country in Samorin, photo by Paul Halford
The British mixed relay team, photo by Paul Halford
Paul Halford covered the European Cross Country for us. His column is a thought piece on lessons from Samorin. I think that you will like it!
We’re used to seeing African athletes dominate world distance running, but on Sunday they again held a commanding presence in the European Cross Country Championships.
The senior victories in Samorin, Slovakia, of Turkey’s Yasmin Can and Kaan Kigen Ozbilen were controversial given they were both born in Kenya. Ironically, although Turkey is politically in Europe, the vast majority of it geographically is not. To compound the situation, the country’s officials have been accused of a deliberate strategy to import African athletes.
If there was such a policy, it’s paying off. Ozbilen is the fourth different senior men’s winner in four years from Turkey – all of them transferees. In fact, the last time a European-born athlete won that race was in 2012. Given that Ukraine-born Sergiy Lebid won it eight times, this century has seen just three European-born winners. On the women’s side, the last win from a runner born on the continent was 2014.
So with that controversy out of the way, what else did we learn from the 2017 European Cross Country?
1) Aside from the aforementioned issue that irks most associated with the sport, the European Cross continue to be a great success. Whereas global endurance events tend to be dominated by Africans, this championships has a wide range of nations vying for the major honours. There is a tendency for non-African runners to globally rule themselves out of contention, so much so that barely any European nations enter full teams for the World Cross for example. Thirty-five of the 59 nations from this year’s World Cross were African; only nine were European, accounting for only 77 athletes. However, when it comes to the European Cross, despite the Turkish influence, there is a feeling that anyone can challenge.
2) Ozbilen was a class apart. Britain’s Andy Butchart, sixth at the Olympics over 5000m, would be a solid hope for gold in top form, but he had finished just fourth at the trials, still recovering from some time out at the end of last season. Here was he clearly in better shape and enjoying the faster surface, but it was maybe a race too soon for him as he finished third.
Ozbilen displayed his 2:06:10 marathon ability when holding off the early pace – he was five seconds behind at 4.1k – to pull through strongly. He got quicker as the race went on, running 4:20 for the final 1500m lap. The Turk, who was just 10th last year after falling, said: ” I am very happy I could make it up this year and reach for a gold medal as I am back in the shape and injury-free. Anyway it was a tough competition – the cold made the run much harder.I loved the course, it was very special and I even did not mind about the frozen water jumps as they were not too wide.” He will now prepare for the Boston Marathon in April.
3) Great Britain was a class apart again. They topped the medals table with five gold and nine podium places overall. Turkey was next best with three gold and seven medals overall. They had been ousted from that position by Turkey last year after 13 successive years on top.
4) Yasemin Can rules Europe. She became only the second woman to successfully defend her title, having claimed both 5000m and 10,000 at the European Championships last year. She destroyed both Meraf Bahta of Sweden and Karoline Grovdal of Norway – the latter ran a 9:13 steeplechase this year – clear by 12 seconds. The former Vivian Jemutai, who gained Turkish citizenship in 2015, apparently found the weather to be the biggest problem – Kenyans clearly don’t like -1C conditions.
“It was not easy race as it is very windy and cold here,” said the athlete who will celebrate her 21st birthday tomorrow (Monday). “The wind was pushing me back. However, I like to keep in my own rhythm – to slow down and speed up whenever I want, so I did not mind I had to to run on my own. I kept pushing till the end and I enjoyed my run very much.”
5) Maybe the under-23 and senior races should be merged. On the women’s side there is a stronger argument for abandoning the controversial under-23 grouping. Germans Alinah Reh and Konstanze Kosterhalfen would surely have been close to the medals – if not challenging for them – in the senior race. They were clear in their race – a calculation using an internet time predictor to allow for the different distances – suggests winner Reh and her close challenger would have finished fourth and fifth. Combining the two could lead to much more competitive race. It’s different on the men’s side – French former footballer Jimmy Gressier, who won the under-23 race, would have finished just 29th in the seniors, says the projector – although the race was cagey early on so the time should have been quicker. Those in favour of the under-23 category say it stands as a powerful development tool for athletes who dominate in the junior ranks and then suddenly find themselves nowhere among the seniors. However, the Euro Cross is one of the few events that use the category, so it’s hard to claim it will be missed. We might as well drop it to create greater spectacles in the senior events.
6) We should see “real” cross country next year. That’s what the organisers from Tilburg, Netherlands, have promised us and international runners who have tried out the course agree the course around a safari park will be tough.
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