British cross country runners do Britain proud, but Lottery paymasters remain unimpressed
It is a travesty that the British cross-country team does not receive Lottery funding. Mud-loving distance runners are the harrier heartbeat of the sport in the UK and have proved once again this weekend that they are kings (and queens) of Europe. Yet they get nothing.
Why? Simply because cross country is not an Olympic sport.
What a cock-eyed policy. For many, the road to Olympic glory invariably starts on muddy fields such as the ones we saw in Velenje, the Slovenian town that hosted the 2011 European Cross Country Championships.
Just ask Mo Farah, who finished fifth in the junior men’s race in 1999 when the event was last held in Velenje. Or Constantina Dita, the Romanian who won the Olympic marathon title in 2008 – she was second in the women’s race in Velenje 1999. In fact, most of the world’s greatest distance runners, from Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe to Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, cut their teeth on the cross-country circuit.
Twelve years ago, following the 1999 Euro Cross in Velenje, Athletics Weekly was hopeful that things would change. After Britain had won team golds in the senior and junior men’s races, AW’s news editor Trevor Frecknall wrote: “If the outstanding performances of Britain’s men at the European Cross Country Championships don’t persuade the Lottery funders to drop their Scrooge-like attitude to the Cinderellas of the athletics scene, maybe this fact will. Britain has been the second most outstanding European nation in cross country over the past decade behind Spain.”
It was wishful thinking and, to make matters worse, Britain is now the undisputed European No.1 when it comes to cross country following its medal haul of six golds, five silvers and one bronze in Velenje 2011. But there is still no sign of funding.
At this point, credit should go to UKA for continuing to support British endurance squads over the past decade. British – and indeed European – runners have repeatedly been told by the media and public that they cannot beat the Africans, yet the governing body has never lost faith, pumping its resources into developing distance runners and intelligently identifying the European Cross more than a decade ago as a smarter winter target than the World Cross.
The London Marathon has also helped by funding the UKA altitude training camps in Kenya and the French Pyrenees. In addition sponsors like Saucony have backed events like the English National Cross and Cross Relays, while Reebok and then McCain have supported the all-important domestic breeding ground – the Cross Challenge series.
Lottery funding, though, remains elusive. Maybe it will happen one day if cross country eventually becomes a Winter Olympic sport. But that is only a slim possibility and, at best, several years in the future.
Until then, cross country runners will continue to compete for love not money and with the long-term target of ultimately gaining the Lottery funding that rewards success on the track or in the marathon.
In some ways, you could argue that this is just they way they like it. Cross country, after all, is the ultimate obstacle course – it is all about clearing barriers, climbing hills and ploughing through mud. The tougher it is, the better.
Yet I can’t help think that a bit of financial help would not go amiss. Or at least some kind of financial reward for doing Britain so very proud.
» This Thursday’s issue of Athletics Weekly will feature much more coverage from the Euro Cross, with photos of all races, in-depth reports and analysis over 11-12 pages of the magazine.