Athletics: Italian threat to Britton's hopes for Euro gold
FIONNUALA Britton's coach Chris Jones has warned her that Italy's Nadia Ejjafini is one of the wild cards to watch out for as she chases Ireland's first senior medal in 17 years in the European Cross-Country Championships in Slovenia on Sunday.
Not since Catherina McKiernan's victory in the inaugural event in 1994 has an Irish athlete won Europe's top cross-country prize, with Sonia O'Sullivan and Mary Cullen's fourth placings in 2003 and '08 coming closest.
With no previous champion involved, Britton is being tipped to take gold in Velenje. The Kilcoole Olympian was pipped for bronze in Albufeira last year; she is a former silver medallist at U-23 level and has been the top European in her two preparatory races.
But as the Irish team departed yesterday, Jones earmarked Ejjafini as one to watch after her 32-second victory in a big race in Spain last month.
That was the same day that Britton came third behind two Ethiopians and beat her Turkish arch-rival Binnaz Uslu by over 30 seconds in a high-class race in France.
Ejjafini is a Moroccan who declared for Bahrain, before qualifying to run for Italy in 2009 through marriage. Jones feels that Ejjafini, Holland's Adrienne Herzog (2009 bronze medallist) and Germany's Sabrina Mockenhaupt (a former silver medallist) will provide the most serious threat.
Uslu is another contender. She won the junior title in '04, edged Britton for U-23 gold five years ago and then came back, after a drugs ban, to take silver last year, much to Britton's frustration,
Also in the mix will be Romania's Ancuta Bobocel, a former junior and U-23 winner, and Serbia's Olivera Jevtic (34), who won one of her five bronze medals on this course in 1999.
But Jones acknowledges that Britton "is in great shape and as prepared as I've ever seen her," and she is undoubtedly Ireland's best medal hope.
Two-time national champion Joe Sweeney, eighth as an U-23 and 21st last year, has set himself a 'top 10' goal, while Mick Mulhare, the only survivor from last year's winning U-23 team, has similar ambitions.
Britton's sister Una is one of two Irish women racing in the U-23, where in-form national senior champion Sara Louise Treacy (Moynalvey) is looking to improve on her previous placings in the mid-20s.
The injury absences of Ciara Mageean and Shane Quinn's have weakened the junior teams, but DSD's Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner, in her first year in the junior grade, and Mullingar's Jake Byrne, lead the charge.
Elsewhere, some of Ireland's Olympic hopefuls have been boosted by the IAAF's softening of the 'A' qualifying standards in the men's and women's 400m, the women's 5,000m and the women's 400m hurdles. No Irish athlete has yet qualified in any of these events.