Athletes and organisers upbeat in Budapest after travel chaos threatened to disrupt European Cross Country Championships
A record number of 539 athletes from 35 countries competing in the 19th European Cross Country Championships no doubt feel like they have already run a marathon in the lead-up to Sunday’s races in Budapest.
The closure of Budapest Airport on Friday due to an electrical fault in its control tower led to delayed flights and travel turmoil with many teams such as Britain re-directed via Vienna, where they then took a two-hour-plus coach journey to the Hungarian capital.
Most of the GB team arrived at their team hotel in Budapest at about midnight on Friday. But a group of Brits, including coach Bud Baldaro and English Cross Country Association secretary Ian Byett, endured a 10-hour delay at Luton Airport before being flown to Bratislava at gone midnight and eventually arriving at their hotel at 6am on Saturday. Others had similarly gruelling trips, with US-based Brit Tom Farrell, for example, forced to spend Friday night in Amsterdam.
Given this, it was no surprise to hear Britain’s Emelia Gorecka, the defending junior women’s champion (pictured, above left, with Norwegian Henrik Ingebrigtsen and Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton), tell media at the official pre-championship press conference on Saturday afternoon: “I’m going into the race ready to expect the unexpected.”
During the conference, just one of the 35 teams, Georgia, had failed to make it to Budapest, although they were expected to arrive in the city later in the day. Christian Milz, the director general of European Athletics, explained: “We had to completely re-organise things at 11.30am on Friday when the airport closed and there was much uncertainty as we didn’t know if the airport would open on Friday night, Saturday morning or next week.”
He added: “The mark of a good sailor is being able to weather the storm. However, it was not our intention to test the organising committee like this!”
Karel Pilny, vice-president at European Athletics, added: “All the teams will be here for the races on Sunday despite the difficulties and we have 1500 accredited people in total at an event that is one of the leading four events that European Athletics stage each year alongside our outdoor, indoor and team championships.”
The travel disruption was such that European Athletics put out a press release late on Friday to confirm the championships would indeed go ahead, therefore hinting they were in jeopardy at one stage shortly after Budapest Airport was closed.
Sunday’s races take place at the Skanzen – a huge outdoor museum that showcases the modern history of Hungary in Szentendre, about 20km to the north of Budapest city centre. Sub-zero temperatures and a light dusting of snow are likely to make the course fast and scenic and despite their travel problems most teams were able to inspect the course on Saturday.
Dr Miklos Cseri, the director of the Skanzen, said he wanted to stage the event on his local patch so he could see Paula Radcliffe in action. Currently recovering from surgery, Radcliffe is not in Hungary. However, on hearing the tundra-style nature of the course, the world marathon record-holder offered advice via Twitter on the length of spikes to wear (12-15mm at front; 9-12mm at the back), while from midday in the UK she will be commentating on the races with Steve Cram and Brendan Foster from Manchester.
Radcliffe is one of many world beaters who learned her trade as a distance runner on the rolling, muddy and sometimes frozen fields of the cross-country circuit and she won the Euro Cross title in 1998 in Ferrara and in 2003 when the event was held in Edinburgh.
Mo Farah is also a former winner, taking the 2006 title before going on to win the Olympic 5000m and 10,000m titles six years later.
The last time an international cross-country championship came to Budapest was 1994 when the city’s Kincsem Park staged the world championships and a crowd of almost 8000 saw Haile Gebrselassie finish third in a men’s race won by William Sigei. Later that year, the European Cross Country Championships was born, with Paolo Guerra of Portugal and Catherina McKiernan of Ireland the inaugural senior winners in Alnwick, north-east England.
Irish hopes are high again this year with Fionnuala Britton defending the senior women’s title. The 28-year-old looked relaxed at Saturday’s press conference, too, and told a hardcore group of Irish reporters who have travelled to Budapest: “It’s good to have an important event to focus on during a post-Olympic period when athletes sometimes struggle for motivation.”
Britain is expected to once again top the medals table and the squad will be looking to repeat the 2011 results when every member of the GB team travelled home from Velenje in Slovenia with medal.
The senior men’s race is more intriguing and potentially controversial. Sergiy Lebid of the Ukraine is gunning for his 10th Euro Cross title, but much attention is on last year’s first-placer, Atelaw Bekele. The Ethiopian-born Belgian runner has missed three out-of-competition drug tests in the run-up to the championships but is allowed to compete ahead of an anti-doping hearing that takes place eight days after the event.
Speaking to AW on Saturday, Milz confirmed European Athletics’ stance: “Our position is very clear. We are following the situation but we have to follow the procedure whereby the Belgian federation has a hearing and then it goes to the international federation, the IAAF, and when it is clarified then we will get the official information.
“It means we have to respect the athlete, we have to respect the procedure which is in place and the hearing (results) will be broken from the Belgian federation and then we will find out what the reasons are regarding Bekele’s missed tests.”
It is a messy issue and it has surprisingly remained a low-key story in the run-up to the championships compared to the massive media storm that swirled around British 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu, for example, when she missed three out-of-competition tests in the run-up to the 2007 World Championships.
The organisers could escape an embarrassing situation, however, if Bekele finishes outside the medals. And his average form this winter so far suggests that could be the case.
» See the latest print edition of AW for our full preview of Budapest, while the next issue of the magazine, out on December 13, will feature more than a dozen pages of reports, photographs and results from the championships.