Seb Coe chairs cross country crisis meeting in Belgrade on Monday. His challenge? To make racing on mud fashionable again
Scary stats in Athletics Weekly recently showed that 229 Brits broke 2:25 for the marathon in 1983 compared to just 26 in 2013. Similarly alarming was the fact 140 Brits broke 31:00 for 10,000m in 1971 but only 29 this year.
It is hardly a coincidence that these worrying figures are linked to the decline of cross country. Once the staple diet of every schoolboy’s sporting schedule, budding mud-larks have been hamstrung by health and safety rules and a cotton-wool culture.
For sure, Britain is expected to top the medals table at the European Championships in Belgrade on Sunday, with every member of the 36-strong team likely to return home with a medal. But this success is set against a backdrop of continent-wide apathy when it comes to racing on mud. At the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz in March, for example, Russia, Germany, Ukraine and the Baltic and Nordic nations were all AWOL.
Once called the toughest footrace on the planet, the World Cross is now held every two years. African domination has scared off not only rival nations but potential host venues too.
Given this, Seb Coe is chairing a cross country crisis meeting (or IAAF global seminar to use its correct name) in Belgrade on Monday. He will be joined by Paula Radcliffe, Sonia O’Sullivan, Craig Virgin, Benjamin Limo and Annette Sergent, as they search for solutions to improve cross country’s credibility.
Radcliffe cut her teeth on the country, winning world junior gold on a snowy Boston course in 1992 before taking senior titles in Ostend 2001 and Dublin 2002. O’Sullivan famously won a 4km and 8km double in Marrakech in 1998 when short-course races were part of the World Cross. Virgin, meanwhile, is the only American man to win the World Cross (twice, in fact, in 1980 and 81), while Limo won the 4km title in 1999 and Sergent women’s gold in 1987 and 89.
It is an impressive cast of experts. Question is, though, can they make a difference and drag cross country out of its Cinderella status and back to its rightful place as the focal point of distance-running racing?
A no-brainer, for starters, is to avoid flat, featureless courses in future and stage tougher tests in glamorous major city-centre parks in countries with an established cross-country tradition. No doubt this is far from easy to pull off, but imagine a World Cross in New York’s Central Park, or one of London’s Royal Parks.
Making October-December the “cross country season” would avoid clashes with indoor events and marathons, both of which are much busier than they were 30-40 years ago. Winter Olympic status should definitely be pursued, as it would put the sport in the spotlight, leading to more sponsorship, improved funding from governing bodies who presently argue “it’s not an Olympic sport” and, subsequently, greater media coverage.
Better prize money – if the IAAF and national governing bodies can afford it – would tempt road runners back on to the country. English lessons for African winners could also help them sell their stories to Western media.
Most of all, though, cross country needs to sort out its image problem. Struggling with a tired reputation, it’s been outmanoeuvred by trendier trail races, big-city marathons, parkrun events and Tough Mudder-type challenges in recent years.
Young runners must be reminded that pretty much every distance-running legend – from Radcliffe to O’Sullivan and Mo Farah to Haile Gebrselassie – all started their athletics lives by racing on natural terrain.
They grew up running on the country, not concrete. Their early races took place on mud, not Mondo. Yet somewhere, somehow, modern runners are losing touch with this tradition.
Even with its 15mm spikes digging deep into the turf, cross country is losing its grip in an increasingly varied world of running. If it’s going to fight back, Coe’s conclusions next week will be crucial.