Events & Meetings

Flashback to Ferrara 1998 | The reign of Radcliffe and Lebid begins

  • News
  • Flashback to Ferrara 1998 | The reign of Radcliffe and Lebid begins

In the second of four themed features ahead of this year’s edition of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Piemonte-La Mandria Park near Turin on 11 December, we look back at the very first time Italy held this event, with the city of Ferrara in the north-east of the country being the host in 1998.

In the first instalment, we turned the clock back to 1994 for the first ever edition of the European Cross Country Championships in Alnwick. 

The reign of Lebid begins...and a gold medal for Battocletti

A memorable - if bitterly cold - day in the picturesque Emilia-Romagna region saw victories in the senior races going to Ukraine’s Serhiy Lebid and Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, triumphs that were later to have historic overtones.

Lebid, who had spent a lot of time training in Italy and could also speak passable Italian, had won bronze 12 months before in Oeiras, Portugal but an indifferent summer - having only finished a modest 15th in the 5000m at the European Athletics Championships in Budapest - meant few people expected to see him on the podium again despite his growing reputation as a cross country runner.

However, in the end, his turn of speed over shorter distances stood him in good stead on the relatively flat and fast course despite the chilly conditions.

He emerged victorious after a six-way battle for the honours for much of the second half of the 9.7km race, winning a sprint with Belgium’s Mohammed Mourhit in a duel for the gold medal with Lebid coming home one second clear of his rival.

Notably, the first Italian home was Giuliano Battocletti – whose daughter Nadia was born 16 months later and who has gone on to win three individual European cross country titles and will be one of the main Azzurri hopes to win a medal this year – in seventh place.

Ferrara Battocletti

Battocletti led the home nation to victory in the team event, their first ever win in what was, at the time, the short history of the European Cross Country Championships. Italy scored 53 points on that day to win by two points from Portugal.

And history could repeat itself next month. The Italian team which will be helmed by European 10,000m champion Yemaneberhan Crippa are considered very strong contenders for team honours.

Reigning champion Carsten Jorgensen just missed out on an individual medal with a fifth-place finish while eventual four-time champion Paulo Guerra from Portugal was 11th, two places ahead of 1995 world marathon champion Martin Fiz from Spain who was making his first and only appearance at the European Cross Country Championships.

After so many near misses, Radcliffe lands her first major gold

Radcliffe had won the world U20 cross country title six years earlier and had subsequently developed into a formidable distance runner, including taking back-to-back World Cross Country Championships silver medals in 1997 and 1998.

Consequently, the Brit was arguably the favourite in Ferrara, despite finishing out of the medals over 10,000m in Budapest during a summer campaign which was curtailed by an energy-sapping virus.

Radcliffe was clearly far from full fitness in Budapest but the soon-to-be world marathon record-holder didn’t disappoint the pundits and her many fans in Ferrara. Showing no ill-effects of the virus which saw her slip out of medal contention in a sprint finish at the European Athletics Championships, Radcliffe emphatically strode to her first major international title in the senior ranks just four days before she celebrated her 25th birthday.

On the last of four big laps which comprised the 5.6km course, Radcliffe was accompanied by Finland’s 1995 winner Annemari Sandell, Yugoslavia’s Olivera Jevtic and 1996 Olympic 10,000m champion Fernanda Ribeiro from Portugal but Radcliffe pulled away in the closing stages to win by three seconds from Sandell and Jevtic. Ribeiro missed out on an individual medal but did lead Portugal to the team title.

"Winning here means a lot to me," said Radcliffe, who went on to win the world cross country title in 2001 and 2002. "It wasn't a soft race and I needed the title. I've had a bad week but I think it was because of nerves. I always planned to make my move on the double hill and the plan worked out."

Lebid, who competed in an unprecedented 19 editions of the championships from the first edition in 1994 until 2012, was to take an astonishing eight more gold medals as well as a silver and another bronze and stands as the most successful and prolific competitor in SPAR European Cross Country Championships history.

He will also have a key role to play at this year's championships. Lebid has been assigned the position of team leader for the 11-strong Ukrainian team who will be competing in La Mandria Park on 11 December. 

Radcliffe was also to taste success again on the continental stage. Among her many other accolades, Radcliffe made a winning return to the championships in 2003 when she took her second individual gold as well as leading home a victorious British team in Edinburgh.

U20 titles for Szentgyorgyi and El Nasri

In the women’s U20 race, Hungary’s Katalin Szentgyorgyi – who was to win the senior title two years later – was an impressive winner over 3.6km as she prevailed over Portugal’s Ines Monteiro by seven seconds, the most emphatic winner of the day, although the latter would go one better the following year and take gold in 1999.

Behind the leading pair, Yugoslavia’s erstwhile favourite and 1997 winner Sonja Stolic – who would go on to amass 13 appearances at the championships – had to settle for third on this occasion. 

As a harbinger of the future, the next two women home were Türkiye’s Sebile Ozyurt and Tezeta Nuray Surekli, who led their country to surprise team honours and the country’s first of many European Cross Country Championships titles.

And in his first ever race in a Spanish international vest with Moroccan-born teenager having only just become eligible to compete for his adopted country less than two weeks earlier, Yousef El Nasri upset the odds and beat Romania’s 1997 European U20 10,000m champion Ovidiu Tat by one second in the men’s U20 contest.

El Nasri was to climb the podium again in Ferrara when he led Spain to the men’s U20 team gold medal and he enjoyed further success the following year by winning the European U23 5000m title. He retained this title two years later.

Ferrara saw what was then a record 287 athletes competing across the four races there, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that participation in Piemonte-La Mandria Park on 11 December will be about double that figure with the addition of U23 races and the mixed relay in subsequent years.

The success of Ferrara, not just from the perspective of having four exciting races for audiences on the course and in front of their television screens across the continent, has meant there has never been any reservations about Italy staging further editions of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.

Click here for full results from 1998. 

Phil Minshull for European Athletics

Official Partners
Official Partners
Official Partners
Official Partners
Official Partners
Official Partners
Broadcast Partner
Broadcast Partner
Preferred Suppliers
Supporting Hotel
Photography Agency