Irish runners call for halt to African recruitment by European countries
IRELAND scored two promising top-10 places at the European Cross-Country Championships' underage races and also had two athletes in the top 20 in the senior men's race, where they had their best team position (sixth) for years.
But those achievements were overshadowed by the elephant in the room in Belgrade: the amount of African-born runners who took medals at the event.
Kilcock's Paul Robinson and Clonmel's Sean Tobin were both ninth respectively in the U-23 and junior races.
Robinson (St Coca's) only returned from training in Australia 11 days ago and is heading out there again after Christmas for another three months, while Tobin hopes to take up an American college scholarship in the New Year.
Portlaoise's Michael Mulhare and West Waterford's David McCarthy were part of the group that won U-23 team gold four years ago and showed why by finishing 15th and 18th in the senior men's race.
That title was won by Spain's Alemayehu Bezabeh, an Ethiopian who moved there 10 years ago, was cleared to run for them in 2008 and has served a two-year drug ban since winning the European Cross-Country title in Dublin in 2009 when Mo Farah was second.
He had a 21-second winning margin over Polat Kemboi Arikan, a Kenyan whose eligibility to compete for Turkey was fast-tracked last year and top Briton Andy Vernon, who pulled out a brilliant sprint to pip Belgium's 2009 junior champion Jeroen D'Hoedt for bronze.
The flying pace of the men's junior race was dictated by a two-man breakaway that saw Turkey's Ali Kaya take gold ahead of Belgium's Isaac Kimeli, 16 seconds clear of the field.
Both are of Kenyan origin and Kaya, who won the European junior 5,000/10,000m track titles last summer, has only been permanently living in Turkey since May 2012.
The women's U-23 title was won by the relatively unknown Sifan Hassan, ahead of two former junior champions, local darling Amela Terzic and Britain's Charlotte Purdue. Hassan is another Ethiopian, who moved to Holland in 2008 and was cleared to run for them two weeks ago, 10 days after her citizenship came through.
Athletes are allowed to switch allegiances once they gain citizenship in their adopted countries but must sit out competition for two years for their new homes if they have competed internationally before.
But there is growing disquiet that so many athletes are switching countries and that Africans are now featuring at Euro Cross' with the same sort of dominance that has driven European runners away from World Cross'.
"It's tough on the guy coming third (Russia's Mikhail Strelkov)," Tobin said of the junior race.
"He's probably thinking he should be European champion.
"It's very frustrating as this guy (Kaya) is good enough to be winning senior medals and is taking a medal off juniors while we're still developing."
McCarthy was even more forthright: "It's fairly s****y, these are the European championships and you have Africans in it and previous drug cheats."
"It's disheartening," admitted Mulhare, whose brother Dan was 31st and Ireland's fourth senior scorer after Annadale's Paul Pollock (26th). "The Europeans were championships that we could always target for medals.
"I know the IAAF is holding a conference here (today) about cross-country and they should really talk to the Turks and Belgians to try to stop this."
Apart from Fionnuala Britton, Ireland's U-23 men made a very brave bid for a medal.
They were lying third with just a lap and a half to go when Shane Quinn was 14th to Robinson's 13th but he suffered badly on the last lap to finish 41st behind John Travers (32nd) and Kevin Dooney (38th) and they had to settle for fourth place, 42 points behind France.
DSD's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner, in 37th, was Ireland's best placed in junior women where young British star Emelia Gorecka, runner-up last year, regained the title she won two years ago.