Athletics: Britton going flat out to defy history
WHEN Fionnuala Britton followed in Catherina McKiernan's footsteps to become only the second Irish athlete to win a European Cross Country title a year ago, it was not the only similarity between them.
Like McKiernan, the Wicklow athlete's slight frame belies her power, and she similarly floats gracefully across the top of the muck.
Like the Cornafean great in her hey-day, Britton (28) also would rather stick pins in her eyes than do media interviews, particularly ahead of a big race.
She has politely refused all interview requests in the build-up to tomorrow's title defence but, as reigning champion, will be unable to dodge the spotlight in the Ramada Hotel in Budapest later today.
Sitting at a top table beside Ukraine's legendary nine-time men's winner Sergiy Lebid will help deflect the attention, but the unavoidable media scrutiny will underline the status and pressure she is now carrying.
That press conference may well be delayed after the Budapest airport was shut down due to electrical problems yesterday in the control tower. Britton and the rest of the Ireland team were forced to change her travel plans at the 11th hour and stop-over in London before taking a bus from Vienna.
Organisers last night insisted the event would go ahead as planned, and Britton will be hoping the disruption won't cause a power failure of her own.
This time last year Britton – an U-23 silver medallist who had been 11th, seventh and fourth in the senior event – was seen as just another plucky Irishwoman.
Now she's the one to beat, and how she deals with that pressure will decide if she can retain her crown – the hallmark of all great champions.
Track running is a very different animal and her coach Chris Jones persuaded her to abandon steeplechasing this year to concentrate on the flat.
Things looked exciting when her 10,000m debut in April (31:29) was the fourth fastest ever by an Irish woman.
When she followed with a 5,000m PB of 15:15.69 (sixth fastest on the Irish all-time list) expectations soared that Britton would claim a medal at last summer's European track championships in Helsinki. But, despite making the pace and leading for most of the 10,000m, she was overtaken with eight laps to go and forced to settle for fourth.
There were mitigating circumstances. Britton was sick beforehand and on antibiotics, which curtailed her training. Her tactical naivety could also be excused by the fact that it was only her second ever 10,000m track race.
Her third, in the Olympics, was just as brutally instructive, a lonely 15th place in 31:46, and she was subsequently only 10th in her 5,000m heat in London, though her 15:12.9 was a PB.
"Fionnuala still needs more time to develop as a track runner, no doubt, but she is a class act on the country, her mechanics are just so good," says Jones, who is extremely happy with her form. They cherry-picked the same two races in preparation as last season and her results were almost identical.
There was some panic when Britain's Jess Coulson finished ahead of her in Burgos but Britton fell in that race and Coulson, who subsequently won the British trials, is competing in the U-23 race tomorrow.
Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix should be Britton's biggest threat. It was she who reeled her in to win the European 10,000m title last summer and, having taken bronze and silver at the last two EuroCross Countries, she's chasing gold.
Almensch Belete, an Ethiopian who was only cleared to run for Belgium last June, also looks dangerous. She ran 15:10 in the Olympic 5,000m heats and trains at altitude but her staying power over 8,000m is unknown. Jones accepts that Belete is a serious wild card but says Britton's attitude will be "she's just another athlete in a Belgian vest".
History doesn't favour the Wicklow athlete as no woman – not even Paula Radcliffe – has retained this title since McKiernan's inaugural victory in 1994.
Becoming a champion brings inevitable pressure but it also magnifies self-belief and in Slovenia last year Britton attacked this race with huge confidence. If she can harness that again, in sub-zero temperatures that should favour her, she could defy history.
European Cross Country Championship, Live, RTE 2, 12.0-2.0 and via www.european-athletics.org
Race Schedule (all times Irish ): Junior women 9.15; JM 9.55; U-23W 10.40; U-23M 11.25; SW 12.15; SM 13.08