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Fionnuala's flying solo

ALTHOUGH Fionnuala Britton is certain to run at the World Cross-Country Championships in Poland next March, she may well be on her own.

Britton, not only double European champion but also part of the gold medal-winning Irish team at the European Championships, had hoped that a team would be sent.

At the Antrim International last week, she again proved herself the dominant athlete at this discipline in Europe at the moment.

Half a minute behind in an excellent fourth place came Linda Byrne, another local athlete whose roots are very much in the mud and guts of cross-country. Byrne had finished sixth in a much tougher field at the Great Edinburgh Cross-Country a week earlier and was eighth behind Britton in the Europeans.

Byrne, although she had shone on the roads in the past 18 months, is the current national champion, winning at Santry last February. She clearly believes that running off-road makes her stronger and fitter for the track and the roads.

Also on that winning Irish team in Budapest were Ava Hutchinson and Lizzie Lee, backed up by Sarah McCormack and Sara Treacy and with Kerry Harty very unlucky not to get the nod. That's a strong squad - yet none of these athletes ran in Antrim, which is the only top class international cross-country taking place on this island. Think of the welcome they would have got!

Of course, it's a complex problem, with no easy answers. If an Irish team hasn't a hope of taking a medal at the World Championships where the might of East Africa dominate, then why bother going? Far easier to aim for a spring marathon, where a personal best time is as good as a medal.

Yet Catherina McKiernan, European champion and four times runner-up at the Worlds, didn't think like that. Sonia O'Sullivan, double world cross-country champion, didn't think like that. Paula Radcliffe, world cross-country champion and world record holder for the marathon, didn't think like that.

Yet, as it stands, when the World Cross-Country Championships roll around, the champions of Europe won't be there. And when our own National Championships take place next month, who will turn out?