Events & Meetings

Preview | Can Kimeli make the most of his moment in the spotlight in Brussels?

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  • Preview | Can Kimeli make the most of his moment in the spotlight in Brussels?

The big question everyone is asking is: will Isaac Kimeli shine in Brussels’ weak winter sun at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships on Sunday (10)?

The local star and poster boy for this year’s event may never have a better chance to capture a continental senior title to add to his European U23 cross country crown from 2016 after two-time reigning champion and European Athlete of the Year Jakob Ingebrigtsen announced last month that he will miss the championships for the first time in his international career owing to a lower back problem.

Kimeli, now 29, and a European U20 silver medallist a decade ago in 2013, took silver in the senior ranks behind another Ingebrigtsen - Filip - in Tilburg in 2018 and bronze 12 months ago in Turin so would undoubtably have been among most pundits' predictions to make the podium.

However, Ingebrigtsen’s absence inevitably change the dynamics of the race and has propelled Kimeli into the position of being arguably the pre-championship favourite.

He will, of course, have the fervent backing of an enthusiastic home crowd but Kimeli is also very familiar with the Brussels course having won the Belgian national title back in February, which the Championships Team Manual warns will have "mud expected due to the time of year."

This could potentially put his main rivals from southern European nations such as Italy and Spain at a disadvantage, even though Kimeli frequently says he is not always a big fan of the heavier circuits that are common in his homeland.

Ahead of the championships, Kimeli told local media: "I stopped my outdoor season early so that I could immediately prepare for the European Cross Country Championships after my holiday. You will probably only experience a European Championship in your own country once in your entire career. That's why I have really trained specifically [for it]. I have consciously done training on cross country terrain, something I never did before."

Backed up by a team which includes Robin Hendrix and John Heymans, there is a good chance Belgium could feature in the race for the team medals as well. It could be some party in Laeken Park on Sunday, with Kimeli definitely guaranteed more than his fair share of support. 

"My girlfriend has already bought tickets for 30 people, so if everyone shows up, it will be worth it. I will do everything I can not to disappoint the Belgian supporters," he added.

Italy’s Yemaneberhan Crippa, fourth 12 months ago on home soil and just two seconds behind Kimeli on that occasion will be looking to dampen the anticipated festive atmosphere in Brussels and add the senior cross country title to his European U20 gold medals from 2014 and 2015 as well as his 10,000m gold from the 2022 European Athletics Championships.

Crippa, who also won the European 10,000m Cup title this summer, showed good form when he returned from a period of altitude training in Kenya to win the Cross La Mandria International on 19 November although he had to work hard to hold off his improving compatriot Pasquale Selvarolo who only finished one second behind Crippa. 

Selvarolo was only 46th last year at the same venue as last month's race but has the ambition and form to suggest a much higher placing in Brussels. He came to note domestically a few weeks prior when he clocked a 1:00:32 half marathon to climb to fourth on the Italian all-time list. 

Led by Crippa, Italy took the team silver medals last year and will undoubtably be in contention for a place on the podium again – with 2022 mixed relay gold medallist Yassin Bouih and Italian marathon record-holder Iliass Aouani also in their squad – but 2021 and 2022 champions France will be looking to make it a hat-trick of team triumphs and have entered the nucleus of the their successful squad from last year.

Bastien Augusto and Yann Schrub finished sixth and seventh respectively in 2022 and will be looking to place, at least, in the top 10 again.

Augusto in particular has had an impressive last six months, and his feats include improving his 1500m best to 3:34.85 in July and recently clocking 27:40 for 10km on the roads. For his part, 2022 European 10,000m bronze medallist Schrub was the first European home over 25 laps of the track at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest this summer.

The pair are augmented this year with the addition of multiple individual and team age-group Hugo Hay to the French team.

Hay won U23 silver and bronze at the 2017 and 2018 European Cross Country Championships behind Jimmy Gressier. He just missed out on his first major medal as a senior when he was fourth individually in Dublin two years ago, although he was the second counter of their triumphant gold medal-winning team. 

Inevitably, 2022 team bronze medallist Spain once again bring some notable names to this championship and should have the talent in depth to be medal contenders once again although they will have to counter the stereotype of the conditions not playing to their strengths.

2021 seventh-place finisher Nassim Hassaous, Sergio Paniagua and Abdessamad Oukhelfen, the latter 10th last year in Turin, have strung together a series of impressive performances and high placings in the traditionally very strong Spanish international cross country races in November and will likely feature at the front end of the race.

This trio is augmented in the Spanish team by 2018 European cross country U20 silver medallist Ouassim Oumaiz and 2018 European Athletics Championships 3000m steeplechase silver medallist Fernando Carro.

Great Britain, although not as strong as most recent years, will be led by international triathlete Hugo Milner, who looks set for a big improvement on his 32nd place last year after dominating the British trial race on a heavy and muddy course in Liverpool. He is joined by Zakariya Mahamed who steps up into the senior ranks after winning individual silver in the U23 race last year.

And even though Jakob Ingebrigtsen will be a conspicuous absentee from this year's race, the family will still be represented in the senior men's race by older brother Henrik. Now 32, Henrik Ingebrigtsen competed in the U20 race when Brussels staged the 2008 SPAR European Cross Country Championships and he opened up the family medal haul as the fourth counter of Norway's silver medal-winning team. 

With both genders racing the same distance within the same age-groups for the first time at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships, one anecdotal note is that the 2023 senior men’s race will be the shortest ever at almost exactly 9km.

Phil Minshull for European Athletics

A complete entry list for the Brussels 2023 SPAR European Cross Country Championships is available here.

The championships will be streamed in their entirety on the All-Athletics platform from 12:05 local time (CET) and will be accompanied by expert English-language commentary.

There will also be extensive race day coverage of the championships on the European Athletics website and across European Athletics’ social media channels.

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