Thursday 14 December 2017

Britton looks to stay hot on the heels of Africans

Fionnuala Britton will spearhead the Irish challenge in Poland tomorrow
Fionnuala Britton will spearhead the Irish challenge in Poland tomorrow
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

IT may have the rest of us diving for our duvets but the latest polar chill sweeping across Europe may well prove useful to Fionnuala Britton and the Irish women's team at tomorrow's World Cross-Country Championships in Poland.

Flying into Bydgoszcz airport on Thursday they were greeted by snow ploughs, -7C temperatures and a frozen course; similar to the arctic conditions in Budapest last December when four of them – Britton, Linda Byrne, Ava Hutchinson and Lizzie Lee – brought home that historic European team gold, on top of the Wicklow star retaining her individual title.

Since then they've been strengthened by the welcome return to top form of Mary Cullen of North Sligo AC, who was once fourth at European Cross-Countries and, like Britton, has won European indoor bronze at 3,000m (2009).

The weather's relevance?

Well, to borrow from Dorothy in the 'Wizard of Oz', we're a long way from Limerick racecourse, Cavan golf course and Marrakesh now, Toto.

Back in the late 1970s, when John Treacy won two World Cross' titles in a row, the East Africans had not yet stormed this discipline. Even when Catherina McKiernan won those four World XC silvers in a row in the early '90s there wasn't yet a massive army of Africans breathing down her neck.

That had started when Sonia O'Sullivan famously won both the long and short-course titles in Morocco in 1998. The short-course races were actually introduced that year to try to give non-Africans a chance to win medals but O'Sullivan, in her prime, needed no such advantage.

Since then, Paula Radcliffe (2001-02) and Australia's Benita Johnson (2004) are the only white women to win World XC titles, and the last white man to make an individual podium was Ukraine's Sergiy Lebid (silver) in 2001.

O'Sullivan (seventh), Anne Keenan-Buckley (10th), Rosie Ryan (18th) and Maria McCambridge (50th) pipped Russia to team bronze when Ireland hosted the event in Leopardstown in 2002, but that was in the short-course (4km) race which was discontinued after 2006.

The geographical advantage of East African athletes appears key to their distance dominance, but their movement to represent Arab states like Qatar and Bahrain has also increased their numbers in this event and the odds against white runners.


So despondent did Europeans become that their entries waned considerably and IAAF responded by making this event biennial since 2011.

There is a significant gap in standard now between European and World Cross-Countries, which is why Britton's coach Chris Jones is calmly preaching a mantra of "top-10 or top-12 (finish) would be fantastic".

Britton repeatedly points to America's recent form in this event as proof that the 'race' angle is sometimes overplayed.

Shalane Flanagan was 12th individually and led the USA to team bronze in 2010, and a year later was third individually when America retained their team bronze.

Even though reigning champions Kenya are without their gold and silver medallists from 2011 (Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai), and Ethiopia's Olympic 10,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba is out injured, those two countries have phenomenal talent and depth, no matter how open this year's race is accepted to be.

Britton has quietly had two top-20 finishes before; 16th in Spain in 2011 and a magnificent 14th in the blistering heat of Mombasa in 2007 when she was the second white athlete home.

She returns a much stronger runner, brimming with the confidence of two European titles and an indoor medal and the weather won't bother her.

If she can hang in with the hectic pace at the start and the finish she could exceed all expectations, and if the team are to get anywhere close to a top-five place, then Cullen and Byrne must stay as close to her – and each other – as possible.

World Cross-Country Championships

Live, tomorrow, RTE2, 12.0

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