Tuesday 21 November 2017

Britton gunning for historic Euro treble

Irish star has incredible cross-country feat in sights

Fionnuala Britton will be going for gold again in Belgrade tomorrow
Fionnuala Britton will be going for gold again in Belgrade tomorrow
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

SONIA O'Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe, two former world champions at the discipline, are among some legendary distance-runners invited to speak about the future of cross-country running in Belgrade on Monday.

Sebastian Coe is chairing the International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) summit on the discipline, which appears to have been beset, at local and world level, by some worrying apathy.

Since 2011, the World Cross-Country Championships are only held every two years.

That's because African domination of the event has become so strong that European nations are starting to give the championships the swerve completely. When it was held in Poland last year, major athletics powers like Russia and Germany didn't bother entering.

Dwindling participation numbers at lower levels have also increased the cross-country debate, which ranges from fusty Python-esque exchanges – "Young people today, eh? We ran down coalmines to get to school!" – to whether it has been affected by the proliferation of marathons. There is no doubt that only truly hard and dedicated runners make successful mudlarks.

Mo Farah may be a double Olympic track champion, but back in 2009, when Ireland hosted the European Cross-Countries in Santry, he was only second and collapsed after the finish line.

Throw in -12 conditions, a frozen course and the fact that no woman had ever successfully defended the European Cross-Country title before and you get some measure of what Fionnuala Britton achieved in Budapest a year ago.

She had made it look relatively easy the previous year in Slovenia, when, after finishing fourth in 2010, she finally matched Catherina McKiernan's achievement and won her first European Cross-Country title. Behind her then was Ana Dulce Felix, who was also runner-up last year, and the Portuguese runner will be out to avoid that unwanted treble in Belgrade tomorrow (12.12 Irish time).

There were only four seconds between the top three last year, which shows just how deep Britton had to dig to retain her title.

She demonstrated a marvellous turn of foot over the final 100 metres and speed is something she has definitely added to her armoury, as she demonstrated again last March when dipping to claim bronze in the European Indoor 3,000m final.

The Wicklow athlete's dedication is legendary and was epitomised when she donned her gladrags to receive an award at AAI's annual gala luncheon two weeks ago. When everyone else went to the hotel lobby afterwards to continue their celebrations, Britton (29) slipped out through the candles and sequins in her running gear, as she headed out for her second session of the day.

Further athletics history beckons tomorrow, even though her coach Chris Jones accepts the difficulty.

"No one around thinks she can actually win this a third time. That's not being negative, that's the size of the challenge," he stresses.

Britton had to pull out of the World Championships last summer when she couldn't shake an infection and was not the first European home in a recent cross-country international in France, where Sophie Duarte was ahead of her, so it's believed she's not as sharp as last year. Another eleventh-hour switch of nationalities – Ethiopian Sifan Hassan is running for the Netherlands now – set off some alarm bells, but Hassan has plumped for the U-23 race.

Belgium's Almensh Belete made a similar switch last year, but only finished fourth and she is in the mix again, as is Duarte and Italy's Nadia Ejjafini.

Adrienne Herzog, a Dutch athlete was third last year, but is not entered.

The field includes Norway's former junior champion Karoline Grovdal, but Britton's biggest threat could yet be Gemma Steel, who took bronze in 2011.

SUPPORT

She looked good at the British trials and will have strong support from high-class team-mates Steph Twell and Julia Bleasdale.

Britton's joy was doubled last year when her Irish team-mates packed brilliantly for a most unexpected team gold.

Linda Byrne (eighth), Ava Hutchinson (20th) and Lizzie Lee (23rd) were the other scorers when they pipped France on countback.

But Sara McCormack (36th last year) and Sara Treacy (42nd) are the only others available to defend that title in a much weakened team.

European Cross-Country C'ships,

Live, tomorrow, RTE2/BBC2, 12.0

Irish Independent

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