In the third of four themed features ahead of this year’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Piemonte-La Mandria Park on 11 December, we look back at when Italy staged the championships for the second time in San Giorgio su Legnano in 2006.
Farah caps breakthrough season with gold
Mo Farah was narrowly outkicked by Spain’s Jesus Espana for the 5000m title in a classic race at the 2006 European Athletics Championships in Gothenburg but the Brit found redemption with a long run from home in the senior men’s race in San Giorgio su Legnano.
Strengthened by a stint at high altitude in Kenya, Farah put 10 seconds between himself and some of Europe’s leading endurance athletes with a decisive and sustained surge with one lap to go. The Brit covered the 9.95km course in 27:56, winning his first major continental title by a comfortable margin.
Initial silver medallist Fernando Silva from Portugal (28:03) was eventually disqualified for a doping violation which elevated Spain’s Juan Carlos de la Ossa (28:06) and Sweden’s Mustafa Mohamed (28:08) into silver and bronze respectively.
"I’m perfectly pleased with how it worked out. I definitely worked hard for it. And it’s been a really good year for me. I’ve been injury-free and that’s been the main thing," said Farah, who fulfilled some of his early promise that summer by improving his 5000m lifetime best from 13:30.53 to 13:09.40.
Among the athletes who trailed in Farah’s wake was Ukraine’s Serhiy Lebid. The six-time champion was beset with breathing difficulties and faded back to 11th, his lowest finish at the championships he was already synonymous with in 10 years.
"I was very surprised," said Farah on Lebid’s demise. "When we began the last lap, I noticed that he was about 10 metres back, and just thought: 'Whoa.' But that was when I had to make my move."
Their careers might have gone in divergent directions after 2006 but Lebid can boast a rare victory over Farah - who would win another seven European titles not to mention countless global accolades - in a major continental competition.
After regaining his title in Farah’s absence in 2007, their paths crossed again in 2008. Lebid would outpace Farah on the uphill section in the last 600 metres in Brussels for his eighth title before winning gold for an unprecedented ninth and final time in 2010.
Holovchenko stuns everyone, including herself, for senior women’s gold
There was a Ukrainian winner in 2006 but from a rather unexpected source.
In a women’s race which was admittedly lacking in a clear favourite, Tetyana Holovchenko seized the race as she kicked to what was - and what would remain - the biggest victory of her career.
It would be wrong to say that Holovchenko lacked credentials but the Ukrainian was much more renowned for her middle distance exploits. She had scant experience at distances beyond 3000m and very little in the way of demonstrable cross country form.
Even the winner herself did not expect to leave with a gold medal for posterity. "I never expected to win. I thought that a place in the top three was within my reach,” said Holovchenko, who was 50th in her only prior appearance at the European Cross Country Championships.
The European 1500m finalist had no trouble adapting to a course measured at a fraction over 8km. She took up the initiative in the early stages, looked comfortable on the flat but slightly churned up terrain and kicked away from Russia’s Mariya Konovalova for victory by one second, 25:17 to 25:18.
Serbian veteran Olivera Jevtic rallied in the late stages to win the bronze medal in 25:21 ahead of Hungary’s Aniko Kalovics. This marked not only a return to the podium after a six year absence for Jevtic but also a fifth bronze medal at the European Cross Country Championships.
And the race for the team title couldn’t have been closer. Both Great Britain and Portugal were tied on 47 points and even though the first two British counters - 2004 winner Hayley Yelling and Jo Pavey in sixth and eighth respectively - were ahead of the first Portuguese athlete - Jessica Augusto in ninth - Portugal shaded the title by virtue of their fourth counter outperforming her British counterpart.
And that race within a race couldn’t have been closer either. Both counters shared an identical time but Monica Rosa finished that all-important one place ahead of Kate Reed. That was enough to secure a tense and dramatic team title.
If there was a pre-race favourite, that honorific went to Russia’s Inga Abitova, the recently crowned European 10,000m champion. However, an out-of-sorts Abitova was never in contention and finished more than one minute behind the winner in 31st-place.
Familiar faces contend for the U20 titles
In the women’s U20 race, Stephanie Twell won her first of three individual and team U20 titles ahead of a 16-year-old Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal from Norway with another championship stalwart Ancuta Bobocel from Romania coming away with the bronze.
That silver was the first of eight individual medals that Grøvdal would accrue, a record for a female athlete at the European Cross Country Championships. Grøvdal would win the U20 title in Dublin 2009 before finally striking a long sought-after senior title in the same city last year.
And another record-breaking athlete won gold in the U20 men’s race. Andrea Lalli strode to individual gold on home soil and also led Italy to a triumphant team title.
Lalli went on to win the U23 title two years later before winning the senior title in sub-zero temperatures in Budapest in 2012. He remains the only athlete - male or female - to win individual gold medals across all three categories at the European Cross Country Championships.
The U23 races were introduced to the programme for the first time in 2006 - albeit as exhibition events for the first edition - with the view of facilitating the transition from the U20 to the senior ranks.
Türkiye’s Binnaz Uslu, who was to serve two doping bans in a chequered career, won the first instalment of the women’s U23 race ahead of eventual two-time senior winner Fionnuala McCormack while Hungary’s Barnabas Bene moved through the ranks, following his U20 wins in 2004 and 2005 with a victory in the U23 race.
Thanks to the efforts of Farah and Twell, Great Britain topped the medal table at the 2006 European Cross Country Championships which saw what was at the time a record 509 athletes register.
Click here for full results from 2006.
Steven Mills for European Athletics