Today (21) marks 50 days to go to the 2023 SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Brussels, the last major event on the calendar for 2023.
This will be the third time Belgium has staged the European Cross Country Championships after previous editions were held in Charleroi (1996) and Brussels (2008) and this year's edition returns to the picturesque Laeken Park, home of the Royal Castle and the famous Atomium monument.
This will be a historic edition of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships. For the first time in event history, the men and women will run the same distances in their respective age-groups: 5km (U20), 7km (U23) and 9km (senior)
Tickets are now on sale for this year’s edition and the event will be streamed through the European Athletics website on the All-Athletics platform courtesy of Eurovision Sport.
Looking back to 1996 and 2008…
The 1996 edition in Charleroi has the distinction of being one of the muddiest European Cross Country Championships to date.
But undeterred by the ankle-deep mud, Great Britain's Jon Brown showed the strength that would take him to back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the Olympic marathon by ploughing to victory in the men’s race. His winning margin of 35 seconds in the 9.7km race remains the biggest in championship history.
In the women’s race, the late Sara Wedlund from Sweden upgraded her silver medal from the year before with victory over Spain’s Julia Vaquero but only after initial winner Iulia Negura from Romania was disqualified for a positive drug test.
With the Romanians also demoted in the team race, hosts Belgium were upgraded to bronze on home soil - their first and only medal in the women’s senior team race.
The senior races were still the only two individual medal races on the programme although the U20 race was added to the schedule albeit as a demonstration event in 1996 before becoming a fully-fledged medal event in 1997.
But by 2008, the programme consisted of six individual medal events with the U23 races the newest addition to the schedule.
In the senior races, the great Ukrainian Serhiy Lebid closed down and then outsprinted Great Britain's Mo Farah for his eighth of nine individual titles while Hilda Kibet from the Netherlands took gold in the women’s race ahead of Jessica Augusto and Ines Monteiro who led Portugal to the team title.
History was also made in the women’s U20 race in which a British team led by Steph Twell swept the first six places - a feat that had never been achieved before at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships and has never been achieved since.
And the Ingebrigtsen family medal haul also started in 2008. Henrik Ingebrigtsen was the fourth counter of Norway’s silver medal-winning team in the U20 race which was headed by Sondre Nordstad Moen who won individual silver behind France's Florian Carvalho.
Looking ahead to 2023…
Some 15 years later and Henrik’s older brother Jakob could chase a prospective seventh successive title at the European Cross Country Championships having won four U20 titles before graduating to senior gold in 2021 and 2022.
His Norwegian teammate Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal is also aiming for a hat-trick of titles in the senior women’s race, a feat which has only been achieved by Türkiye’s Yasemin Can who won four successive titles between 2016-19.
One of Grøvdal's closest challengers could be Italy’s Nadia Battocletti who looks set to make her debut in the senior race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships. She is currently on a win streak which dates back to 2018 having won U20 titles in 2018 and 2019 and U23 titles in 2021 and 2022.
Similarly, Great Britain’s Charles Hicks could also aim to cap his glittering career in the age-group ranks by chasing a third successive title in the U23 race which would accompany his 5000m title from the European Athletics U23 Championships in Espoo this summer.
For the host nation, their best medal prospects in Laeken Park include Isaac Kimeli - the bronze medallist behind Ingebrigtsen in Turin last December - while a full strength team has the potential to challenge for the title in the mixed relay.