Fionnuala McCormack misses out as African women take European medals

Kenyan women running for Turkey take gold and silver at European Cross Country

Déjà vu all over again - because not for the first time, Fionnuala McCormack was run off the European Cross Country medal podium by the uncomfortably conspicuous presence of African women, ending up a close fifth.

Over the flat, fast course in Chia, Italy there was simply no stopping Yasemin Can and Meryem Akda, the two Kenyan women now running for Turkey, despite neither living nor ever even training there.

Indeed the title chase was over inside five minutes as Can and Akda raced clear, Can taking the outright win over the 8km course in 24:46 - 10 seconds ahead of Akda. Both women were only declared eligible for Turkey earlier this year, their swift switching of allegiance fast-tracked thanks to a loophole in the IAAF’s transfer rules.

“I think you can write the script at this stage,” said McCormack, trying her best to contain both her disappointment and discontent at the outcome of the race. Fourth in this race last year, behind another African-born winner, the Irish woman had also finished fourth behind Can in the European 10,000m on the track this summer.

Once the two African runners had bolted clear, McCormack found herself racing for bronze - pressing hard from the front, with great determination. Over the last lap however Karoline Grovdal from Norway edged ahead to take bronze, with Ancuta Bobocel from Romania taking fourth, just one second ahead McCormack.

That uncomfortably conspicuous presence of the African women - replicated in the men’s race as another two Kenyans now running for Turkey took gold and silver - is something McCormack hasn’t been shy to comment on, describing it as a “joke” during the summer, and after finishing fifth here, suggested both women had moved to Turkey “for the craic”, if only because the rules allowed them to.

“I suppose I’m a bit reluctant to say anything more about the Turkish situation. I don’t think it’s right, but it’s not just Kenyans moving to Turkey. I don’t think it’s right that people can just swap countries and change names just whenever they feel like it.

“I don’t have a problem with particular people. I kind of do, because I know it’s part of their decision, and I don’t think that those decisions should be allowed. And I think it’s from the top the changes need to be made. It’s not an individual athlete going from Kenya to Turkey, just for the craic, like. That is the problem, and like a lot of things in this sport, that problem comes from the top down.”

The Irish women’s team, who had claimed bronze over the last two years, ended up sixth on this occasion, losing ground on the last lap: Ciara Mageean was the next best placed in 31st, falling over the line in exhaustion such was the extent of her effort, with Michelle Finn 33rd, and Kerry O’Flaherty 54th. Turkey, helped by those Kenyans, were also runaway winners of that team title.

For McCormack, there was no disguising the hurt at not making the individual medal podium: “I didn’t come here to win a medal. I came here to win, not just to be on the podium. And I really thought I was in shape to do it. I didn’t feel great on the first lap or so. But I didn’t panic. I just felt like I was never going anyway. I just had to stick to the plan. I knew Can and Grovdal were the big threats, but I didn’t really factor in Akda, the other Turk.

“When those two (Can and Akda) took off, I knew it wasn’t great, that they would work together. That meant there was only one place up for grabs, really. I tried to break the other women, with 2km to go, but I just couldn’t do it. It was quite windy out there, and I was working as hard as I could off the front, but they were getting some benefit, from drafting, and I just couldn’t get away.”

Still, she wasn’t put off by the presence of the African women: “No. It doesn’t make me want to win it any less. It possibly makes me want to win it even more. In the last few years, I don’t think I was in my best shape, and chased the race a bit, but this year I was, and wanted to race it, not just to be in it.”

Yet at 32, competing in what was her 14th European cross country, including junior and under-23 races, McCormack hasn’t given up on the quest to regain the title won back-to-back in 2011-12: “It’s not the way I wanted my year to end, to be honest. So in that sense it’s probably my worst race of the year. But it’s done now. So I suppose I’ll just have to come back for the 15th time, next year. I suppose distance runners can improve at this age. So I’ve got plenty more years to make comebacks, hopefully.”

Can, who turned 20 on the day, was formerly Vivian Jemutai, and only became eligible to compete for Turkey back in March; likewise with Akda, previously known as Mirriam Jepchirchir, who had run for Kenya as recently as May of last year.

Best of the Irish elsewhere was Jack O’Leary, who finished an excellent sixth in the junior men’s race, having pressed for a medal throughout, while Paul Pollock was best of the senior men in 36th, that race also dominated by two Kenyans, Aras Kaya and Polat Kemboi Arikan, now running for Turkey, although Britain did manage to win that team title.