How Europe became the cross-country capital of the world

Fresh off his blazing college season in the US, Brian Fay is ready to lead the Irish senior men’s medal pursuit in Turin

As with many seminal sporting moments in this life, I can vividly recall where I was and exactly what I was doing when this one happened: sitting in my mother’s yellow Renault 4 in a muddy field somewhere in Tinryland, on the outskirts of Carlow town, listening to RTÉ Radio as it brought us the news. Oh girl!

It was early December 1994, and a small gang of us from Dundrum, South Dublin had driven down to run the Leinster Cross Country. Not long home after running for four years in college in the US, my plan and assumption was this was my race to lose. Which I did, naively letting some local buster get away on the last lap, and ending up fourth, disgusted with myself.

Which was okay, though, because the Leinster Cross-Country was very early in the season, nobody even cared, especially when the World Championships were still more than three months away, right?

Immediately after, we were sitting in the back of the old Renault untying our spikes when Greg Allen came on RTÉ Radio, live from Alnwick in the north of England, telling us quite excitedly that Catherina McKiernan was about to win the first ever running of the European Cross-Country. This changed everything.


McKiernan’s victory was close, jousting with Spain’s Julia Vaquero down the home stretch, in the end her victory margin a mere second. It may as well have been a country mile: having finished second in the previous two editions of the World Cross Country, it was a perfectly just reward too.

In previous years, the World Championships were the only cross-country race that truly mattered, anywhere in the world, before slowly and then suddenly it was reduced to a parade of East African runners. Through no fault of their own, naturally. There were the odd exceptions, including Sonia O’Sullivan’s brilliant win in Marrakesh in 1998, and Paula Radcliffe in 2001/02, but still the East African dominance remains near-complete.

Since 2011, the World Cross-Country has gone biennial, and after some Covid postponements is set for Bathurst in Australia next February. But for many of the best runners in the world, at least on this side of it, the European Championships are now the only cross-country race that matters.

McKiernan’s win in 1994 was an inspired and inspiring run on many levels, giving hope for all of us running around Tinryland that day, even if those hopes never did come true. The European Cross-Country was winnable, worth aspiring towards, an essential component of any athlete’s progression.

Which was underlined in 2011 when Fionnuala Britton (now McCormack) bridged the 17-year gap since McKiernan’s inaugural win, then defended that title in Budapest in 2012, also leading the Irish women’s team to gold medals, a first on either the World or European Cross-Country stage.

Things got awkward and messy for a few years after the IAAF, now World Athletics, amended their rules on transfer of allegiance whereby the previous three-year wait could be “cancelled in exceptional cases”, which in many cases it was, allowing athletes from countries like Kenya in particular to start winning European Cross-Country titles for countries like Turkey, despite never living and certainly never training there.

Indeed three successive men’s titles went to African-born athletes – Alemayehu Bezabeh from Ethiopia, who won for Spain in 2013, and Kenya’s Polat Kemboi Arikan and Ali Kaya, who won for Turkey in 2014 and 2015, before Yasemin Can, also from Kenya, won the first of her four women’s titles for Turkey in Chia, Italy in 2016.

World Athletics eventually shut down that joke of an avenue, and while the African-born runners are still present, the European dominance is duly restored, ample evidence of which should come again in this Sunday’s 28th staging of the event inside Turin’s Piemonte-La Mandria Park – Europe’s second-largest enclosed park after the Phoenix Park.

All six individual winners from Abbotstown last December are back. Jakob Ingebrigtsen, incredibly still only 22, and Norwegian team-mate Karoline Grovdal offer further proof of the value and prestige placed on this event, while Nadia Battocletti will again give Italy something to shout about in the women’s Under-23 race.

The European Cross-Country has gained value in other ways too, especially for those running in college in the US, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Irish senior men’s team. While in other years returning to race in European after a long collegiate season was maybe an afterthought, it’s now become the forethought.

Of the six Irish senior men’s team members (with three to score, remember), half are fresh off the American college cross-country season, arguably in the form of their lives. At the famed NCAA Cross-Country Championships, held in Stillwater, Oklahoma on November 19th, four Irish athletes finished inside the top 25: Brian Fay (13th), Cormac Dalton (15th), Barry Keane (17th) and Shay McEvoy (23rd). Quality running by all – Fay, Dalton and Keane all running in Turin.

Dalton and McEvoy currently run for Tulsa University, Keane for Butler, and Fay is slightly unusual in that he only went on scholarship to Washington State University aged 22, after completing his undergraduate degree in Dublin.

Top Irish man last year, in 10th, Fay tuned up for Turin by breaking the Irish indoor 5,000m record last Saturday, running a brilliant 13:16.77 in Boston, Keane running 13:21.57 in the same race.

Of the 19 medals now won by Ireland at the European Cross-Country, only one was won by the senior men: team bronze back in 2000. Everything about Fay and the rest of the team points towards a possible podium place in Turin.

“From the NCAA perspective, everyone is keen you perform there,” he says. “If you’re on a scholarship that’s the main priority. But for me, running for my country is my main objective. And the way the race works out, and I’ve been racing, it does fit in perfectly, what I was building up for.

“Running-wise, I wasn’t good enough to go over to the States on a scholarship at age 18. The demand and expectation on you going over is quite hard. I came from a schoolboy mentality and made a big jump in my first year of college. In my running and in myself I don’t think I was mature enough to make the move to America at all. But I think there’s some phenomenal Irish talent coming through in America and it works out well and I would highly encourage everyone to consider it. For me personally, I think it was good that I did four years with Feidhlim Kelly in Dublin. He pretty much brought me from a schoolboy all the way up to a very good international athlete.

“I needed those four years just to get going and then it meant that I could actually have a big impact on the NCAAs. Everything has worked out so well for me.”

Sunday’s European Cross-Country should provide further proof. Medals beckon again.