Africans go the distance for European glory
ATHLETICS:Gothenburg after dawn, the bright light illuminating the double-track tram lines, the Ferris wheel at Liseburg amusement park off in the distance, the cycle lanes neatly lined alongside the old, cobbled pavements.
There’s a pace and cleansed air about the place that is distinctly European, the dress code and elegance emanating its special Nordic nuance. Whatever crisis has gripped other parts of Europe in recent years never reached this far north, even if 20 year-old Volvos still sit alongside newer models.
Gothenburg still has the Scandinavian prices to prove it too, almost the entire Irish Times budget for this trip blown on our first evening meal at Joe Farelli’s, an Italian-American diner, on Kungsportsavenyn – where myself and two photographers each paid 240 kronor (€28) for a small burger, plus 75 kronor (€9) for a medium beer. We’d paid to have our jackets checked on the way in, too, and briefly debated the cost-benefit of walking back to our budget hotel without them.
Luckily, we’ve been kept busy from the go – the opening sessions already setting up one of the more memorable weekends for Irish athletics. Derval O’Rourke came daringly close to turning back the clock last night, falling just short of another major championship medal, and now Brian Gregan looks poised to follow in the footsteps of David Gillick and win a European Indoor 400 metres title. Gregan I know will be perfectly happy to win a medal of any colour, which I really hope he does.
Yet without disguising whatsoever my distance running bias, the race with truly explosive potential is the final of the men’s 3,000 metres – where Ciarán Ó Lionáird is looking to follow in the footsteps of fellow Cork athlete Mark Carroll, who also won this title, in 2000, beating a class field in the process, as did Alistair Cragg, the brilliant winner of 2005.
The problem for Ó Lionáird is that when the gun fires on his final, he’ll have the company of an Ethiopian, a Kenyan, and a Moroccan – all now disguised under various European flags. The biggest danger looks like being Hayle Ibrahimov, who ran away with his heat in 7:50.55, five seconds faster than Ó Lionáird’s winning time in his heat. Formerly Haile Desta Hagos, the 23- year-old was born and raised in Ethiopia, before transferring to Azerbaijan in time for the 2010 European Championships, in Barcelona, where he won the bronze medal in the 5,000m.
Ibrahimov also won the 3,000m silver medal at the last edition of these championships, in Paris two years ago, behind Britain’s Mo Farah – an athlete himself born and raised in Somalia, but who came to his adopted country at a much younger age.
Ó Lionáird also has Adil Bouafif to contend with, the man born and raised in Morocco before, in July of 2010, he took up Swedish citizenship. Then there’s Polat Kemboi Arikan, the distance running artist formerly known as Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi, born and raised in Kenya, before suddenly transferring to Turkey, just in time for their staging of the World Indoor Championships, in Istanbul, where he won a silver medal.
Indeed Arikan’s shift in allegiance was particularly galling, as it coincided with that of Ilham Tanui Özbilen, the Kenyan formerly known as William Biwott Tanui: both Kemboi and Tanui were granted Turkish passports in June 2011, and should, under IAAF rules, have been forced to sit out two years of eligibility, or wait until June 2013, before representing their adopted country. Instead, the IAAF made special a dispensation and cleared them to compete for Turkey last February, just in time for the World Indoors – where Özbilen also won Turkey silver, in the 1,500m.
Özbilen, by the way, will also start as the gold medal favourite here, in the men’s 1,500m – as will Abeba Aregawi, in the women’s event, the former Ethiopian, now representing hosts Sweden, having run 11 seconds faster than her nearest rival this season.
And when Fionnuala Britton begins her challenge in the 3,000m, later today, there’s another former Ethiopian on the start list, Almensch Belete, although Britton did beat her in winning the European Cross Country, in December. Also on the line will be Layes Abdullayeva, another unknown Azerbaijani, formerly known as Layes Tsige, of Ethiopia, who has a best of 8:49.65 that will almost certainly put her in the hunt for the gold medal.
I could go on – the point being that for one of the more traditional European athletics events, now in its 32nd edition, there’s a presence about the track that is distinctly African.
Now Cragg himself won the 3,000m title for Ireland, the birthplace of his maternal grandmother, after a change of allegiance from South Africa. But he had some Irish connections, and had long since severed his ties with South Africa. But with many Africans suddenly set up to win titles here, someone needs to start readdressing the rules of athletics allegiance, and stop handing out European passports at such a ridiculous rate.