Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh was the first male runner to cross the line.
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On Sunday in Belgrade, Serbia, the 20th running of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships saw France’s Sophie Duarte and Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh prevail victorious over tough competition. A reported 571 runners from 37 countries entered the Championships, making it the biggest in event history.
Spain’s Bezabeh Earns Second Gold Medal
Excitement — and surprise — came early on in the men’s senior race, ultimately helping Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh go on to win his second crown in five years.
While leading, Turkey’s Polat Kemboi Arikan approached a set of logs lying on the ground less than 2.5 kilometers into the contest. Attempting to jump over the short barriers, Arikan clipped the log, falling hard to the ground.
The sudden spill gave Bezabeh and France’s Hassan Chahdi reason to surge, stringing out the field immediately. Soon Bezabeh, Chahdi, and Belgium’s Bashir Abdi found themselves far ahead of the main pack.
While Bezabeh continued to push — creating a 10-meter gap of his own — Arikan managed to catch up to Chahdi and Abdi within the next mile, as they all battled for second. Judging by his reaction, the fall didn’t seem to affect Arikan’s mentality all that much.
At 5.5 kilometers, Bezabeh had built up an 11-second lead on Arikan, who was now taking it upon himself to reel in the Ethiopian-born Spaniard out in front.
Judging by his body language — arms flailing, head moving side to side with each stride — it looked as if Arikan was giving every ounce of energy he had trying to reel in Bezabeh. But it was not working: at seven kilometers, the lead had grown to 16 seconds. By 8.5 kilometers it was 18 ticks of the clock.
Ultimately at the finish, the margin of victory was 21 seconds. Breaking the tape in 29:11, the 27-year-old Bezabeh earned his second European Cross Country senior title, adding another win to his 2009 victory. In 2011, Bezabeh was suspended for two years for doping, part of the Spanish doping investigation called “Operation Galgo.” He had only returned to competition in February.
Though he did not speak to European Athletics representatives, Bezabeh appeared very happy to finish first. With his win, Bezabeh joins Ukraine’s Sergey Lebid and Portugal’s Paulo Guerra as the only male athletes to win senior gold medals at multiple European Cross Country Championships. (Interestingly, this is the first edition in the event’s 20 year history that Lebid is not racing).
Despite the early fall, Arikan took second in 29:32. In a photo finish for third, Great Britain’s Andy Vernon edged Belgium’s Jeroen D’Hoedt, with both athletes timing 29:35.
Vernon’s bronze medal was significant in that the 27-year-old now has a medal from each of the three European Cross Country Championships levels. As a junior Vernon took silver in 2005, and in Under-23 competition he’s won bronze (2007) and silver (2008).
In the team competition, Spain scored 31 points, defeating Belgium (49) and Great Britain (60).
France’s Duarte Wins Women’s Senior Title
In a surprise victory, France’s Sophie Duarte ran away with the senior women’s title. Stepping on the gas just after passing the 5-kilometer checkpoint, Duarte took control of the race and never looked back, going on to win in 26:34.
“It was my first time in the cross country, and I am very happy,” said Duarte, a 2008 Olympian in the 3000m steeplechase.
Keeping her composure as Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal took the pace out fast from the start, Duarte remained content staying with the pack, which contained two-time reigning champion Fionnuala Britton of Ireland, Britain’s Gemma Steel, and Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix.
By three kilometers, Grøvdal had been reeled in and the main pack was re-established: Duarte, Grøvdal, Steel, Felix, as well as Belgium’s Almensch Belete and Great Britain’s Julia Bleasdale. Once the group reached five kilometers together in 16:35, things would immediately shake up. Duarte took control out front, injecting a burst of speed that would in turn string the field out into a single file line.
Duarte’s move proved to be the most decisive of the race, as the gap back to second soon grew to ten meters. With her eyes focused on the terrain ahead, Duarte sought to become France’s first senior women’s champion since Yamna Belkacem won in 2001.
While Duarte continued to lead, Steel and Felix battled side-by-side for second, doing all they could to create some separation and chip away at Duarte’s lead. But it was to no avail.
Crossing the line in 26:34, Duarte became the third woman from France to capture the European Cross Country senior title.
“For the French and the world it is important to develop this type of race because you can get a chance to become a better athlete,” Duarte told European Athletics after her win. “I made a strategy with my trainer for this race. I am in a very good shape this season.”
Prevailing in the battle for second was Steel, edging Felix 26:39 to 26:41. For Felix, it was the fourth straight year she had finished on the podium without a win (silver in 2012 and 2011, bronze in 2010). Ireland’s Britton came in fourth (26:45) and Norway’s Grøvdal fifth (26:52) to round out the top five.
Great Britain finished as the team champions with 35 points, giving the country a clean sweep of the women’s team titles on the day (they also won the Junior and Under-23 crowns). France finished second with 54 points, followed by Spain with 61.
Hassan Takes Women’s U-23 Title
Despite being one of the youngest athletes in the field, The Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan cruised to victory in the women’s under-23 race. Hassan, 20, made a decisive move at the 4.5 kilometer mark, separating from Britain’s Charlotte Purdue and Serbia’s Amela Terzic.
Through much of the early stages, it was Purdue — the 2010 European Junior Cross Country champion — pushing the pace out front ahead of teammates Laura Weightman and Kate Avery. Just past halfway, however, the race changed dramatically as Purdue cranked up the tempo, dropping everyone but Terzic and Hassan.
Biding her time, Hassan waited until the bell rang signaling that one more 1500 meter loop remained. The Ethiopian-born Hassan then gapped both Purdue and Terzic without strain, going on to break the finish tape in 19:40.
With her win, Hassan becomes the second gold medalist from The Netherlands since 2008, when Susan Kuijken won the title.
“I thought it would be easy but it was very hard because it was tough competition,” Hassan told European Athletics. “Of course, I am happy.”
With a hard charge in the final 800 meters, Terzic overtook Purdue for second, 19:46 to 19:49. Purdue did, however, lead Great Britain to a dominant victory in the team competition, scoring a mere 19 points.
One spot off the podium in fourth was Avery, who two weeks ago finished third at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.. A sophomore at Iona College, Avery’s final time was 19:56.
Late Move Helps Hannes Earn Belgium’s First U23 Gold
Celebrating with smiles, fist pumps and waves of his arms, Pieter-Jan Hannes earned Belgium’s first men’s Under-23 European Cross Country gold medal, timing 24:02 for the 8 kilometer course.
“It was very special race,” said Hannes, 21. “The plan was to follow the guys almost ’til the end of the race, and in the last round I had to go faster and faster.”
Just like what had happened moments before in the women’s Under-23 competition, the winning move would come late in the race with one circuit of the course’s 1,500-meter loop remaining. After Britons Dewi Griffiths and Luke Caldwell had led the charge early on, it was Hannes making a charge of his own at the sound of the bell.
With each stride taken in the final kilometer, Hannes increased his lead over the field, which included reigning champion Henrik Ingebrigtsen of Norway. While many expected Ingebrigtsen to challenge for the win, he was back among the pack, ultimately finishing tenth in 24:23.
The win seemingly his, Hannes began celebrating with 200 meters remaining, pumping his arms, waving to the crowd, and ultimately grabbing the finish tape with 24:02 reading on the clock.
Completing the podium was Bulgaria’s Mitko Tsenov in second and Serbia’s Nemanja Cerovac in third, 24:07 and 24:08 respectively. Caldwell wound up fifth and Griffiths 16th, part of Great Britain’s victorious team, which also included seventh place finisher Callum Hawkins.
Gorecka Wins Fourth Women’s Junior Medal, Second Gold
Entering the Women’s Junior race, the main question on everyone’s mind was could Great Britain’s Emelia Gorecka become the first four-time European Junior Cross Country medalist. The answer would be an emphatic “yes.”
In between one and two kilometers, Gorecka moved with authority, with only Slovenia’s Marusa Mismas responding. Before long Mismas had faded, though, and it was only the 19-year-old Briton in front.
Completing the four kilometer course in 13:06, Gorecka earned her second gold medal at the championships in three years. After taking bronze in 2010, she won the title in 2011 before placing second to Amela Terzic in 2012. Her margin of victory today would be ten seconds over Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui (13:16), while Mismas wound up third in 13:27.
“I put in all the hard work to make sure I retained my race and feel good, and I did,” Gorecka told the race’s public address announcer. “I’m really happy to end my junior career [like that].”
Great Britain also took the team competition with 24 points, ahead of Sweden (75) and Germany (95).
Kaya Kicks To Men’s Junior Gold
Moments before the start of the men’s Junior race, Turkey’s Ali Kaya smiled into the television camera and gave a thumbs-up. Kaya had plenty of confidence coming into the 6-kilometer race, having won both the 5000m and 10,000m at the European Junior Championships on the track in July.
After sitting steps back as the field passed 1500 meters in 4:21, the Kenyan born Kaya made his way into the lead. Separating from the field, Kaya was joined by Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli and Russia’s Mikhail Strelkov.
From 3000 meters onward, Kaya and Kimeli would battle out front, taking turns injecting surges. Not until the final straight would a winner be decided.
Just as it looked like Kimeli would out-kick and upset the favored Kaya, the 19-year-old from Turkey came from behind and burst to the head mere meters from the line. Prevailing in 17:49, Kaya became Turkey’s first ever men’s European Junior Cross Country gold medalist.
Kimeli placed second in 17:51, with Strelkov holding on for third in 18:05. France was the team champion with 48 points, followed by Russia (51) and Italy (55).
The 2014 SPAR European Cross Country Championships will be held in Samokov, Bulgaria.