The three most recent champions of the senior men’s race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships will line up in Samorin on Sunday but with the presence of Turkey’s Polat Kemboi Arikan, Ali Kaya and Aras Kaya comes a contrast to how competitive the 10.18km event will be.
Among the 78 athletes from 26 nations, two entrants were already deep into their teenage years before any of the gold medallists were even born. Portugal’s Licinio Pimentel will be 41 in April while Spain’s Jesus Espana turned 39 in the summer.
Unlike the track, the varied and often-difficult conditions on the terrain with its undulations and climbs, can be - as the cliché goes - a great leveller albeit perhaps not enough to see Pimentel and Espana causing too much trouble but enough to show that age is no barrier to competing on the major stage.
Arikan, the 2014 champion from Samokov, is the oldest and most experienced of the triumvirate at 26. Ali Kaya claimed the title the following season in Hyeres before namesake Aras Kaya defeated Arikan to claim gold in Chia twelve months ago.
One thing Chia did show was how important consistency has to be within the whole squad for a nation to win team gold. As Kaya won by three seconds twelve months ago from Kemboi, Turkey only ended with team bronze despite taking individual gold and silver.
Top of the podium in the team event went to Great Britain for the first time since 1999 after occupying third, fourth, fifth as well as 16th place. Fourth-placer Andrew Butchart, a world and Olympic finalist over 5000m, returns to the British team although he was only fifth at the trials in Liverpool in an event won by Ben Connor, who was 16th in Chia.
Spain’s men were impressive in Chia as they won team silver and their squad are back to chase the individual and team medals over a course of two short and six long laps. Their squad includes two-time silver medallist Ayad Lamdassem and 2015 bronze medallist Adel Mechaal as well as Javier Guerra, Daniel Mateo, Juan Perez and Jesus Espana, a great stalwart of European athletics.
Espana made his debut in Malmo in 2000 with his best finish being in Toro in 2007 when he was sixth, sixteen months after his biggest success when he famously won the 5000m title at the European Championships in Gothenburg in 2006, pipping Mo Farah to the line in a thriller.
With Filip Ingebrigtsen a late withdrawal due to illness, his older brother Henrik leads the Norwegian team in Samorin. He claimed the U23 title in Budapest in 2012, five months after winning the European senior 1500m title in Helsinki.
But the best chance of a Scandinavian medal in Samorin could be Sweden’s Napoleon Solomon, who is unbeaten this winter at cross country. Solomon won the Nordic title in Middlefart last month and also took a high-profile victory at the Warandeloop in Tilburg at the end of November.
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Elsewhere, European 5000m bronze medallist Richard Ringer carries Germany’s hopes as their sole representative while Hassan Chahdi, a former winner of the U20 and U23 races, is the leading French hope in this race.
And among the four members of the Portuguese team is Pimentel, showing just how much the lure of these championships remains even into your fifth decade.