IAAF president looks forward to World Cross Country Champs in Aarhus on Saturday but wishes more European nations were competing
At the 2008 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Sebastian Coe told AW that coaches were to blame for European disinterest in the event. “Cross country should be a standard part of preparation for middle and long distance athletes,” he said, “as it was for myself, Ovett, Cram, Elliott, John Walker, Aouita, Gebrselassie, Bekele and many others who have also been successful on the track.
“Until we get back to recognising that cross country is an important part of the conditioning process,” he added, “then we will not see standards of European distance running rise.”
Now, just over a decade later, Coe echoed those thoughts on a sunny day in Aarhus when speaking on the eve of this weekend’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in the Danish city.
European participation in the once-great event is still disappointing. But, as IAAF president, Coe is in a far stronger position now to do something about it.
The 62-year-old finds it difficult to conceal his passion for athletics. If track and field athletics is a large family of different events, then cross-country is possibly his favourite child.
“It goes without saying that I love athletics but if I wear my heart on sleeve then I really love cross country,” he admits. “It is quintessentially that element of our sport that sums up the human condition. It’s endurance. It’s focus. It’s strategy. It’s man and woman against the elements and the environment – some naturally occurring and some less naturally – and it’s a synthesis of both.”
Talking at the Moesgaard Museum on Friday afternoon in Aarhus, he added: “I also love cross country because it’s one of the few disciplines in our sport where 1500m runner with ambition and a background in cross country can be as competitive as someone training for a marathon. For me, cross country has it all.
“It’s an inseparable part of the physical and mental development of not just athletes but, I’d go as far as to say, anybody wanting that kind of underpinning to ply their trade in almost any kind of sport.”
Glancing around at some of the competitors who are due to race on Saturday, plus former winners like Lynn Jennings and Paul Tergat, he added: “I wasn’t in the class of the athletes at the event here. I jogged around the English Schools and the odd short cross-country course that Brendan Foster could conjure up for me during my early years, but I also know that it was the foundation of my career.
“At the age of 16, if I knew I could master a 4-5-mile cross-country course then you sure as hell knew there was nothing that was going to be thrown at you on the track that you weren’t able to master.”
Coe believes it is a “misnomer” that athletes cannot race successfully on the country and track in the same season. And echoing his thoughts from Edinburgh 2008, he says coaches need to appreciate its importance.
“What I want to come out (from Aarhus this weekend) is not just a fresh innovation but to try to bridge the gap of understanding which I think is sadly sort of growing as a delta between young coaches and the importance they are now attributing – or not attributing – to cross country.
“We need to get that younger generation of coaches to really understand that cross country isn’t a ‘nice to have’ but it is an inseparable part of the development of endurance athletes, particularly those going on to the track.
“I don’t think there’s any coincidence with the relative diminution with the performances in distance running in Europe and the diminution of interest in attending cross country events like this.”
There are 66 countries competing in Aarhus but there are no runners from Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands or Hungary, whereas Germany, Norway, Portugal, Turkey and Switzerland are fielding literally a one-athlete team.
However, Coe points to the record number of nations (more than 70) where the event will be televised and believes the Australian host Bathurst is capable of picking up the baton in two years’ time.
“They are really engaged with us,” Coe said of the Australian organisers, “and we are telling all federations that this is a world championships and we need them there supporting our events. These are world champs events and an important pathway for athletes.”
On moving the event to the southern hemisphere in 2021, he defended the decision, explaining: “We’re a global sport and we can’t just say ‘it’s a long way away’. We have a responsibility to support each other and help different areas develop their sport.”
» Read more about the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus here