AW’s editor suggests some ideas to revitalise an event that was once the greatest footrace on earth
Few sporting events have experienced such a shift in global power than the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Only two African countries – Morocco and Tunisia – took part in the first-ever meeting in 1973. Yet at this weekend’s championships in the Ugandan capital of Kampala the number of African nations will out-number countries from the rest of the world by 33 to 26.
Ethiopia and Kenya did not contest the event until 1981 but since then have enjoyed incredible domination. So much so that many Europeans have given up trying to compete with them.
When the athletes line up at the Kalolo Independence Grounds on Sunday, for example, there will be no competitors from Germany, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia (naturally, given their global ban) or any of the Baltic nations.
Belgium, who took team gold at the inaugural senior men’s race in 1973, are sending just one athlete to Kampala – the Kenyan-born Isaac Kimeli – whereas New Zealand, who also made the men’s podium in 1973, are not sending anyone to Kampala.
Italy, who produced the senior women’s winner Paolo Cacchi in 1973, have relay runners and junior women only in Kampala. Great Britain is supporting the event more than most with a 16-strong team but has come under fire for fielding no senior men, although the top half dozen strongest runners, led by multiple global track champion Mo Farah, have no interest in competing in it anyway.
On the positive side, an expected 557 athletes are set to race in Kampala on Sunday, beating the figures from the past six editions of the World Cross, while countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan continue to send good teams. Plus, some argue, what’s wrong with incredible African dominance anyway?
There is no doubt, though, the World Cross Country Championships has lost much of its wider appeal in recent years. For one, it’s been reduced to a biennial event held in cities without any great tradition of the sport such as Guiyang in 2015 or Amman in 2009. The absence of so many countries, too, means it is struggling to cling on to its title as a bona fide world championship and many would claim it has effectively become an African championship.
None of this is a new problem, of course. In 2013 I wrote: “Pretty much every distance-running legend – from Paula Radcliffe to Sonia 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.”
So what can be done to resurrect the World Cross Country Championships fortunes? First, the sport should push hard for Olympic status at the Winter Games. This is something IAAF president Seb Coe is supportive of and it would increase the profile of cross country and generate more funding and sponsorship.
Efforts should be made to hold the World Cross in glamorous, big-city venues like New York’s Central Park or London’s Parliament Hill. The date should change so the meeting does not clash with the more lucrative spring road races. The course should also be tough and challenging rather than being a glorified track race on grass with a few token hurdles or man-made mounds.
Better prize money might help attract athletes like Farah. Disinterested nations who are currently boycotting the event should also be persuaded to begin supporting it again.
Certainly, since the IAAF staged a global seminar in Belgrade four years ago to talk about resurrecting the sliding fortunes of international cross country, things have not improved. That particular gathering attracted a number of cross country legends, plus delegates from parts of the world like the Caribbean known more for their sprinting than stamina, but apart from a large review booklet that came out some months later, there were very few original ideas that were put into actual action.
In 2019 the event moves to Aarhus in Denmark with an organising team who are promising some much-needed innovation. It is rumoured this will include a mass participation race and young athletes’ races and, if so, hopefully this will persuade their European neighbours to turn up to what promises to be a festival of cross country.
My first memory of the World Cross was watching the 1983 event in Durham on television. As a star-struck teenager I recorded the action and watched it dozens of times over the following months as Bekele Debele of Ethiopia narrowly out-sprinted Portuguese marathon legend Carlos Lopes and Kenyan Some Muge followed closely by American Alberto Salazar in fourth. Behind, Aussie marathoner Rob de Castella was sixth with runners of the calibre of Italians Alberto Cova (10th) and Gelindo Bordin (26th), Welshman Steve Jones (19th), Craig Virgin (42nd) and Miruts Yifter (67th).
Africa still dominated with Ethiopia taking individual and team titles in the senior and junior men’s races, but it featured an array of the world’s leading distance runners from not only Africa but North America, Europe and Oceania.
The women’s race, meanwhile, was won by Norwegian Grete Waitz ahead of athletes such as American Joan Benoit and Portugal’s Rosa Mota. All of which earned the World Cross the reputation as ‘the greatest footrace in the world’.
It would be great to see the event reclaim that kind of status and for that to happen it needs, above all, everyone to simply turn up in Aarhus 2019.
» See the March 30 issue of Athletics Weekly magazine for coverage from Kampala