The World Cross needs the support of national governing bodies, media and most of all athletes if it’s going to regain its position as the greatest footrace on earth
If, like me, you have mud coursing through your veins, then you’ll be disappointed by the number of no-shows at the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Ignored by large sections of the media and boycotted by cowardly countries who hide from the competition, this once great event is the lost soul of athletics.
Terrence Mahon, the coach in charge of the British team at the 40th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz this weekend, describes the event as the hardest race in the world. If so, why is there such disinterest in it?
Why, for example, has half of Europe boycotted it? Why did top American Dathan Ritzenhein – a junior medallist in 2001 – recently describe it as “insignificant” (a comment he swiftly backtracked on, I’d add).
Even the relatively bulky GB team is minus many of its best athletes – from Olympic champion Mo Farah and Olympic finalists Julia Bleasdale and Jo Pavey to reigning English cross-country champion Keith Gerrard and off-road stalwarts like Tom Humphries, Andy Vernon and James Wilkinson.
Disgracefully, neither Russia, Germany, Ukraine nor any Nordic or Baltic nations have sent athletes to Bydgoszcz this weekend.
Sadly, this is not a one-off either. When the World Cross was last held in Bydgoszcz in 2010, Germany was again absent, as was Finland, a nation renowned for its distance-running heritage, while Russia sent only a junior women’s team.
Shame on them. The toughest footrace in the world – an event that pitches the world’s best milers against the leading marathoners – is only a short flight or train journey for some of these Euro nations. Yet they remain at home.
Depressingly, media attendance is just as bleak and I took no pleasure in being the only British athletics writer at the 2010 World Cross in Bydgoszcz and 2011 World Cross in Punta Umbria, while TV coverage in the UK was limited to delayed highlights on Channel 4. I might expect to be the only journalist at a domestic cross-country race, but this is the world championship. So where was everybody?
Once again, Athletics Weekly has a writer and photographer at the World Cross this weekend, although our reporter this time is not me, but Steve Smythe. If the races weren’t on television I think I’d go mad, but thankfully they are on two British channels – BBC and Eurosport.
Hopefully such improved TV coverage can help resurrect the profile of the championship. The IAAF has also made it a biennial event and there is an ongoing campaign to get cross country into the Winter Olympics.
Everybody agrees the main problem is African domination. Kenyans and Ethiopians especially set such a fierce pace and swamp so many of the leading positions that it’s not surprising non-Africans find it overwhelming and intimidating.
As Jon Brown, the former European cross-country champion and UK 10,000m record-holder prior to Farah, said this week: “Racing at World Cross is not fun. Africans treat it like warfare and take no prisoners. It’s total commitment or embarrassment.”
Throw in the greater rewards (both financial and in terms of publicity) in the marathon and on the track and it is not difficult to see why many Western nations either avoid the World Cross completely or use it as a development event for juniors.
Saying this, Mahon made a good point when talking to AW on the eve of the championship this week when he said it was perhaps no coincidence that the countries that supported the World Cross the most – such as United States and Great Britain – were the ones who continued to taste most success elsewhere.
Tim Hutchings, the individual silver medallist at the World Cross in 1984 and 1989, also weighed in this week when he wrote in Athletics Weekly: “It is too easy for many of Britain’s “top” distance athletes, many of them a long way from world-class, to spend much of their winter in Kenya where they can play the part of a world-class athlete without having really done the hard yards – that is, to put away their domestic rivals in domestic races on a regular basis, before considering taking on the rest of the world.”
Writing mainly about the UK Cross Challenge series and general idea of racing cross-country during winter months, he added: “For the current generation, too much time is spent in warmer climes at altitude, when frankly they ought to be braving a British winter and grafting more – in eﬀect, putting in the hard yards.”
Cross country is often described as the backbone or heartbeat of athletics and the majority of the world’s top distance runners served their apprenticeship at its premier event. Paula Radcliffe won the junior and senior world titles before setting amazing marathon records. Delving into the annals of World Cross history, Said Aouita was pictured on the front cover of AW in 1978 – the Moroccan placed 34th in the junior men’s race before later breaking world records at 1500m-5000m.
Then there is double Olympic champion Farah, who was 11th in the World Cross in 2007 and 21st in Bydgoszcz in 2010 (see photo above), plus several appearances in the World Cross as a junior athlete.
He used those races as a springboard to greater things, but wouldn’t it be great if he had returned to Bydgoszcz this year to cement his status as the world’s No.1 distance runner?
» The March 28 issue of Athletics Weekly includes in-depth coverage of the 40th IAAF World Cross Country Championships