Events & Meetings

Preview | Laros looks to master the mud on his U20 debut in Brussels

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  • Preview | Laros looks to master the mud on his U20 debut in Brussels

Niels Laros will be attempting to close 2023 with his third continental gold of the year when he takes part in the men’s U20 race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Laeken Park in Brussels on Sunday (10).

The U20 races at the European Cross Country Championships have a proven history of giving a tantalising early glimpse of some of the world’s great endurance runners.  

Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s first major title was at the 2016 event when he stormed to gold in the U20 race. It was a feat he repeated at the 2017, 2018, 2019 editions before seamlessly stepping up - skipping the U23 category - to triumph in the senior races in 2021 and 2022. 

Mo Farah cut his teeth at the 1999 edition in Velenje, Slovenia as a 16-year-old,  finishing fifth to lead a  victorious British team to gold. He went on to win individual U20 silver in 2001 and, eventually, the senior men’s gold in 2006. 

Current European 10,000m champion Yemaneberhan Crippa also won the U20 races in 2014 and 2015, landing the Italian his first major titles. 

And this year’s U20 race has all the hallmarks of another vintage crop of distance running stars ready to blossom with Laros very much at the forefront.  

Track star Laros takes to the mud

The 18-year-old was one of the breakthrough athletes of the summer track season.

First, he landed a brilliant 1500/5000m double at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Jerusalem before reaching the 1500m final at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest where he finished tenth in a national record of 3:31.25.  

It will be Laros’ debut at this event, and he will be seeking to emulate compatriot Gert-Jan Liefers who won the men’s U20 gold in 1997, the first time the age group races were staged as an official event. It was also Liefers’ 23-year-old 1500m record that Laros claimed this summer.  

Despite his obvious pedigree, the Dutch athlete is unlikely to have an easy ride. 

In one of the highest-quality fields for an U20 race in recent times, 2021 champion Axel Vang Christensen of Denmark - who won by 25 seconds in Dublin two years ago - returns after a season marred by injury and illness and 2021 European U20 3000m champion Nick Griggs is another doughty competitor with a point to prove.  

The Irishman looked a shoo-in for the title twelve months ago but the 19-year-old’s legs buckled on the approach to the finish and was overhauled in the closing metres by a charging Will Barnicoat from Great Britain who has moved into the U23 ranks this year.

Disaster also struck Griggs at the Irish Cross Country Championships where he collapsed in the last 200 metres in a mudbath of a course but Griggs is a proven talent and will be looking to cap his U20 title in style in Laeken Park.

Spain’s Sergio Del Barrio is another proven performer having won successive European U18 and European U20 titles over 2000m and 3000m steeplechase distances in the last two years.  

He will lead the customary strong Spanish contingent but Great Britain’s solid team led by Henry Dover will be determined to defend the team title. Also watch for Norway's Andreas Fjeld Halvorsen who will be looking for a redemptive performance after falling in a slow and tactical 3000m final at the European Athletics U20 Championships in which Griggs won silver. 

An interesting subplot will be the progress of three Belgian brothers who are among the host nation team. Twins Casper and Mathis Lievins are part of the team along with their younger brother Daan. 

Third time lucky for Thøgersen? 

The women’s race features Sofia Thøgersen from Denmark, a prolific medallist on track who is yet to translate that form at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.

Thøgersen won two medals at both the 2022 European U18 and 2023 European Athletics U20 Championships but in her prior two appearances at the European Cross Country Championships, she is yet to place inside the top 10.

But based on her immense track pedigree, the 18-year-old - who is coached by Tomasz Lewandowski who also coaches Laros - should be in the mix for medals again.  

Kira Weis, 5000m silver medallist in summer’s European Athletics U20 Championships and sixth at thr European Cross Country Championships in 2022, leads a strong German challenge and after taking team bronze last year in Italy they will be aiming to at least equal that result this time around.

Türkiye’s Dilek Koçak, European U20 champion over 1500m has the speed to contend, but will she have the endurance? However, the Turkish team - silver medallists in 2022 - also includes last year's eighth-palce finisher Edibe Yagiz, who is still only 17 and eligible to compete in the U20 ranks for two further years.

A lot of intrigue will surround British runner Innes FitzGerald. The 17-year-old is a passionate environmentalist and instead of flying to last year’s event in Piemonte-La Mandria Park, she tackled a 20-hour-train journey from her home in Exeter in the south-west of England and still placed fourth. 

She is the highest placed returning athlete from the 2022 U20 race and fresh off the train at Brussels Gare du Nord, this year’s championships could present the perfect platform for this rare talent.

Along with her teammates, she will be aiming for a record-extending 17th team gold for Great Britain in the U20 women’s race.

However, it looks unlikely this year’s British team - or any team for that matter - will replicate the incredible exploits of the British U20 women’s team who swept the top six individual places the last time the championships were held in Brussels in 2008. 

Chris Broadbent 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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