Atelaw Yeshetela Bekele New European XC Champ

Atalew Bekele is the new European champion. Photo: Athletics Weekly

He took an early lead and never looked back.

Atalew Bekele is the new European champion. Photo: Athletics Weekly

Written by: Chris Lotsbom
(c) 2011
Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

History was made as Belgium’s Atelaw Yeshetela Bekele crossed the finish line at the 18th SPAR European Cross Country Championships Sunday in Velenje, Slovenia, with his hands pointed to the heavens. The 24-year-old, formerly of Ethiopia, became the first Belgian athlete to win a European Cross Country Championship gold medal, breaking the tape in 29:15 after leading the race from wire to wire.

After storming out to an 80 meter lead by 4K, Bekele seemed to be racing in cruise control. Chased by last year’s silver medalist Ayad Lamdassem of Spain and Hassan Chahdi of France, the Belgian’s lead would gradually be reduced over the next 5K.

“Since I’m not the best at the finish, I knew I would have to get some advantage at the beginning, if I want to be among the winners,” said Bekele in a post-race interview with European Athletics.

But, Bekele was able to fend off Lamdassem and Portugal’s Jose Rocha, who made late charges trying to catch him in the final lap of the 10 km race.

“The last two laps were very hard but luckily I managed to keep my advantage until the very end,” Bekele said. Crossing the line first in 29:15, Bekele drastically improved upon his 54th place showing a year ago in Albufeira, Portugal. In second was Lamdassem, while Rocha rounded out the top three.

Surprisingly, nine-time senior champion Sergey Lebid dropped out with a lap remaining. The senior men’s team title went to France, whose team scored 34 points and was led by Chahdi, who finished fourth.

In the women’s senior race, held just before Bekele’s dash, Fionnuala Britton of Ireland separated herself from Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix and Great Britain’s Gemma Steel and the rest of the field to earn Ireland’s only medal of the day.

Having just missed the podium a year ago, finishing fourth, yet recording the same time as bronze medalist Dulce Felix in Albufeira, Britton was motivated to make it onto the medal stand in 2011.

“It was so fabulous to cross the line first after the disappointment of last year,” she told European Athletics. “I was a bit anxious leading because you have no idea of what is happening behind you.”

Britton becomes Ireland’s first women’s senior champion since Catherine McKiernan won the title in 1994.

The women’s team competition was a nail biter, with Great Britain just edging Portugal, 42-51.

Between the six races contested (Senior, Junior, and U23), Great Britain took home twelve medals: six gold, five silver, and one bronze. Individually, Briton’s Emelia Gorecka (Junior Women) and Emma Pallant (U23) won their respective races. Ilgizar Safiulin of Russia was the Junior Men’s champion, while France’s Florian Carvalho won the U23 race.

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