Britton in exalted company

IRELAND has a rich tradition in cross-country running stretching back to the 1930s and Tim Smyth’s world dominance, through John Treacy’s back-to-back world titles in 1978 an 1979, Catherina McKiernan’s European title in 1994 and then Sonia O’Sullivan’s two world titles on successive days in Marrakech in 1998.

Yesterday, Fionnuala Britton added her name to the list of legends when she claimed the gold medal in a sensational senior women’s race at the SPAR European championships in Velenje, Slovenia.

The 27 year-old Wicklow athlete set out to banish the disappointment of last year’s race in Albufeira when she had the bronze medal snatched from her in the closing stages and she did it in emphatic fashion.

There were plenty of athletes around capable of dictating terms — Binnaz Uslu (Turkey) and Dulce Felix (Portugal), silver and bronze medallists last year, Nadia Ejjafini (Italy) and Gemma Steel, winner of the British trials, to name just a few.

But by the end of the first lap, the Irish woman had thrown down the gauntlet. Her forceful running had split the field and even the leading group of nine had begun to disintegrate.

After covering the first two kilometres in 6:35 only Felix, Ijjafini and Uslu were able to respond and soon Uslu drifted off the back and eventually dropped out.

Felix, fresh from her fourth place finish in the New York Marathon, fell back and was overtaken by Gemma Steel, who got to within a couple of seconds of Britton before succumbing to the pressure and settling for third place. Felix fought back to take silver with the Italian nine seconds back in fourth.

“That was the plan,” said Britton. “I knew what I had to do but they hung on for so long that I started to panic and it was only when I got away from the Italian that I knew I was safe.

“What happened last year has been on my mind for the whole year — even through the summer I was thinking cross-country is really where I can do what I want to do. Last year I missed out (on a medal) by a second or something like that and this year I said ‘I’m not going to have any regrets.’

“Even if it didn’t work out I would know I had done everything I could possibly have done and if it didn’t work out I knew those were my strengths and I just hoped no one else would be stronger.”

Joe Sweeney, who finished fifth in the senior men’s race, admitted he was inspired by Britton as he tried to chase down gun-to-line winner, Atelaw Yeshe Bekele, who claimed Belgium’s first-ever senior men’s gold medal.

“I would not have made that move if I had not seen Fionnuala and heard the national anthem in the Call Room,” he said. “It’s been her weekend. She’s been absolutely amazing.”

He led what was a futile chase going into the last lap it appeared when it appeared as if he, too, would medal but the silver medal went to the pre-race favourite, Ayad Lamdassem (Spain) with Portugal’s Jose Rocha third.

“With two laps to go, I saw that Bekele was weakening up front and I had to make the split decision — should I go for the win or should I bide my time and go for the minor medals. I always try and run my best race so I said I’m just going to go for the win and I gave it everything into the last lap.

“I knew coming up to the bell that I did not have enough in the tank. I had expended too much energy and I felt a bit weak. But I got going again and they were coming back to me in the home straight.”

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