Fionnuala McCormack at best for European Cross Country

African converts present biggest competition for former champion in Sardinia

Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack will be hoping to regain the European Cross Country title in Chia, Italy, on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.

Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack will be hoping to regain the European Cross Country title in Chia, Italy, on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.

 

Strange how the build-up to Sunday’s European Cross County in Chia, Italy, has been about athletes who possibly shouldn’t be there as much as the athletes who are – because there’s simply no disguising what will likely be a strong African presence.

Sifan Hassan, the Ethiopian-born runner now representing the Netherlands, has decided not to defend her women’s title (She’s gone to train in the US with Alberto Salazar.) That doesn’t mean Fionnuala McCormack has only European athletes to worry about in her quest to win that title back for herself.

The Turkish women’s team includes both Yasemin Can and Meryem Akda – two Kenyan-based athletes who have neither lived nor trained in Turkey for any significant period of time.

The Spanish women’s team also features the Ethiopian-born Trihas Gebre, and there’s also Lornah Chemtai to worry about, another former Kenyan just cleared to compete for Israel.

Ali Kaya, the former Kenyan now running for Turkey, has decided not to defend his men’s title, and with that has most likely cleared the way for Polat Kemboi, another former Kenyan now running for Turkey, to win back the title won in 2014.

McCormack has made known her feelings on this issue – “it’s a joke, really” – but that’s not saying she doesn’t have a good chance of winning: everything about her preparation for this year’s event, staged on the southern tip of Sardinia, has been about getting back to the top of the medal podium.

Back-to-back titles

She beat two quality Africans, Ethiopians Etenesh Diro and Trihas Gebre, in Spain two weeks ago, and her record over the last six years speaks for itself: back-to-back titles in 2011-’12, plus three fourth-place finishes, and one sixth.

She’s also helped the Irish women’s team win bronze medals over the last two years and there are certainly similar ambitions on Sunday, as McCormack is joined by Rio Olympians Ciara Mageean, Kerry O’Flaherty and Michelle Finn.

It will also mark a 34th international appearance for McCormack, thus equalling Sonia O’Sullivan’s Irish all-time women’s record. The flat, dry course may not be entirely to her liking but the 6km distance will, even if Can is unlikely to be bothered by the distance or the pace.

Can fairly routed the field in Amsterdam last July to win the European 10,000m in 31:12.86, with McCormack fourth in 31:30.74, and went on to place seventh in that crazy Rio Olympic 10,000m final, running 30:26:41.

Still, it’s just four months since McCormack’s 20th-place finish in the Rio Olympic marathon, and she’s returned to cross country with a certain vengeance.

Joining her in Italy will be Mageean, the European 1,500m bronze medallist, and O’Flaherty and Finn, who both ran the 3,000m steeplechase in Rio.

Kerry’s Shona Heaslip, the surprise winner of the national title in Abbotstown last month, also gained automatic selection.

The men’s team also includes two Rio Olympians in marathon specialists Mick Clohisey and Paul Pollock, with Mark Christie also selected on the back of winning the national title last month.

Jack O’Leary heads the junior men’s team, with Sophie Murphy first selected on the junior women.

Irish Teams: European Cross Country, at Chia, Italy:

Senior Men: Mark Christie (Mullingar Harriers AC), Mick Clohisey (Raheny Shamrock AC), Mark Hanrahan (Leevale AC), Liam Brady (Tullamore Harriers AC), Paul Pollock (Annadale Striders AC), Kevin Dooney (Raheny Shamrock AC).

Senior Women: Shona Heaslip (An Riocht AC), Kerry O’Flaherty (Newcastle & District AC), Ciara Mageean (UCD AC), Fionnuala McCormack (Kilcoole AC), Laura Crowe (An Riocht AC), Michelle Finn (Leevale AC).

Under-23 Men: Karl Fitzmaurice (Ennis Track AC), Mitchell Byrne (Rathfarnham WSAF AC).

Under-23 Women: Bethanie Murray (Dundrum South Dublin AC), Amy O’Donoghue (Emerald AC).

Junior Men: Jack O’Leary (Mullingar Harriers AC), Peter Lynch (Kilkenny City Harriers AC), Darragh McElhinney (Bantry AC), Fearghal Curtain (Youghal AC), Barry Keane (Waterford AC), Charlie O’Donovan (Leevale AC).

Junior Women: Sophie Murphy (Dundrum South Dublin AC), Amy Rose Farrell (Blackrock AC), Emma O’Brien (Inbhear Dee AC/Slí Cualann), Carla Sweeney (WSAF AC), Jodie McCann (Dundrum South Dublin AC), Aisling Joyce (Claremorris AC).

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