Strong opposition awaits reigning champion Ingebrigtsen in Lisbon

Filip Ingebrigtsen
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Filip Ingebrigtsen won the senior men's race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg last year

The senior men’s race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships on Sunday (8) always promised to be one of the spectacles of the day and even more so now reigning champion Filip Ingebrigtsen from Norway has fully committed to the championships.

The championships didn’t initially feature in either Jakob or Filip Ingebrigtsen’s racing schedules this winter and their names didn’t appear on the initial Norwegian team sheet for Lisbon. But both reigning champions were late additions to the final entries last week and they confirmed their participation at the championships on Wednesday afternoon.

At the time of the championships last year, Filip’s lifetime best in the 5000m was the slowest of the Ingebrigtsen brothers but the 2016 European 1500m champion made light work of the distance and the muddy and sometimes heavy underfoot conditions, gliding to victory over the 9880m course at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park ahead of a very accomplished field - most of whom will be in action on Sunday.

Like the Ingebrigtsens, Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli has also changed his racing plans this winter. Kimeli was going to contest the mixed relay in Lisbon but the fellow world 5000m finalist will be going the full distance off the back of domestic victories in Mol and Roeselare last month. Kimeli won silver behind Ingebrigtsen in Tilburg twelve months ago to complete the set of individual medals across the three age-groups.

With only three counters to score, Belgium also has solid medal prospects of picking up a team medal for the first time since 2013. Kimeli will be joined on the start-line at the Bela Vista Park by Lahsene and Soufiane Bouchikhi, the latter representing Belgium in the 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.

As well as the Bouchikhis and the Ingebrigtsens in action this weekend, Yemaneberhan and Nekagenet Crippa are very much to the fore of Italy’s team in the senior men’s race. Yemaneberhan, 23, will be making his eighth successive appearance at this championships in which he has already amassed four individual medals, including back-to-back U20 titles in 2014 and 2015.

Crippa finished some way adrift of the individual medals on his senior debut in Tilburg twelve months ago in sixth but the Italian should be capable of surpassing this showing. In his last race, Crippa finished a creditable eighth in the 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in a national record of 27:10.76 to move to third on the European all-time list.

Fans have become accustomed  to the sight of Turkish runners dominating the senior men’s race at recent editions of the European Cross Country Championships. After four individual wins between 2013 and 2017, Ingebrigtsen put a stop to this pattern in Tilburg, although Turkey did still prevail in the team race ahead of Great Britain and Italy.

Their team might be lacking some of their best runners such as European marathon record-holder Kaan Kigen Ozbilen but Ali Kaya and Aras Kaya - the individual winners in 2015 and 2016 respectively - will be in the medal discussion. Aras Kaya also won individual bronze in 2018 behind Ingebrigtsen and Kimeli.

An exciting and a welcome addition to the senior men’s race is Europe’s finest road racing exponent Julien Wanders from Switzerland who competes at this championships for the first time since he was a junior.

Wanders has since taken down the European records at 10km (27:25) and the half marathon (59:13) and he produced another significant win on the roads last weekend over 7.3km in Geneva on an undulating and lapped circuit which is redolent of the challenge awaiting the 102 athletes in the race at the Bela Vista Park.

If Wanders was to finish on the podium on Sunday, he would become the first Swiss athlete to win a medal in this race in championship history although his compatriots have something of a tradition in the women’s race with Anita Weyermann winning gold in 1999 and Fabienne Schlumpf winning silver last year.

At 20, Spain’s Ouassim Oumaiz is the youngest athlete in the senior men’s race but this is not to discount his medal prospects. Oumaiz has skipped the U23 category after a string of good results on the domestic cross country circuit, including a victory in Atapuerca and a fourth-place finish in Soria.

But even if the individual medals are just beyond his grasp this time, Oumaiz will be a significant factor for Spain in the team race. He is accompanied by European 3000m steeplechase silver medallist Fernando Carro, 2016 European 10,000m bronze medallist Antonio Abadia and multiple U20 and U23 medallist Carlos Mayo.

Great Britain’s Andrew Butchart was part of the gold medal-winning team in 2016 before winning individual bronze the following year. The Olympic 5000m finalist will be donning the British vest again along with Ben Connor who won the British Trials in Liverpool last month.

Also watch out for Sweden in the context of the team race. Their squad features renowned cross country exponents such as Napoleon Solomon and Robel Fsiha - who was the top European finisher at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus - along with David Nilsson although the latter could be forgiven for not matching his tenth-place finish in 2015. 

Just one week ago, Nilsson broke the long-standing Swedish marathon record in the Valencia Marathon, clocking 2:10:09 to secure the Olympic qualifying time.

Men's senior medallists (9880m) in 2018

1. Filip Ingebrigtsen (NOR) 28:49
2. Isaac Kimeli (BEL) 28:52
3. Aras Kaya (TUR) 28:56

Team: 1. TUR, 2. GBR, 3. ITA