Danish host of this month’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships is on a bold rescue mission to resurrect the fading fortunes of the event
If the hotly-anticipated IAAF World Cross Country Championships on March 30 in Aarhus lives up to expectations, then chief organiser Jakob Larsen and his team from the Danish Athletics Federation will not only save the once great event from terminal decline but could rejuvenate the sport generally across the globe.
Cross-country running needs a saviour. One of the oldest and most traditional parts of athletics has been showing its age lately with a tired format, lack of imagination, energy and ideas.
Yet Aarhus is poised to inject new life into this proud old pursuit and the template we are about to see at the Moesgaard Museum on Saturday could set the benchmark for future cross-country races everywhere.
Seb Coe describes it as a “watershed moment” for the sport. The IAAF president is so enthused, he can’t resist a run around the course himself and plans to take part in a 4x2km relay that is just one of several events open to the public on race day.
This year’s championships also have royal approval with Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, planning to take part in the relay as well. Plenty of cross-country royalty are set to grace the event with their presence, too, such as Paul Tergat and Lynn Jennings, among others.
I visited Aarhus earlier this winter and immediately bought into Larsen’s vision for the event. In the land of the Vikings, the course was a cross-country enthusiast’s Valhalla.
Larsen could go down in history as the man who saved the World Cross. Yet the Aarhus formula is a blend of new ideas and old. Most strikingly, athletes will race up the grassy slope of the Moesgaard Museum itself. There are special challenge zones filled with mud or sand and a ‘water splash’ section that draws inspiration from the ‘hare and hounds’ cross-country runs that originated from Shrewsbury School in England.
Pupils and staff from Shrewsbury have even been invited to Aarhus this week with the cross-country team’s captain, or Huntsman, set to start the races in traditional style with a bugle. The English influence does not stop there either. When Aarhus was first awarded the chance to stage the championships, the organisers took a trip to see what they could learn from the historic English ‘National’ with its huge fields and massive history.
Larsen says the goal is to make the course a true test with tough challenges and spectator cheering zones, but his team have been careful not to turn it into a glorified obstacle course race. The essence of cross-country running has been maintained and Larsen says: “In order to let the sun shine on other kinds of runners and to help create new stars, we needed a course that would reward people with a different skill set.”
The director of the Danish Athletics Federation adds: “We all know the feeling of having your rhythm continually disrupted. Well on this course there is nowhere to rest. It is always up or down, twisting or turning, so getting into a rhythm is not that easy.”
David Katz, a hugely-experienced course measurer and IAAF technical committee member from the United States, told me during my visit late last year that the course could be “an equalizer”, giving athletes from outside east African the chance to be competitive.
The Danish approach has come as a breath of fresh air to many. The demise of the World Cross really kicked in a decade ago when Bydgoszcz in Poland held the championships twice in three years, mainly because no one else wanted to stage it.
Edinburgh put on a well-organised championship in the majestic Holyrood Park in 2008, but the apathy surrounding the event in general was illustrated by the fact the host nation’s best-known runners, Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe, plus others, did not include it in their plans. UK Athletics’ performance director, Dave Collins, did not go either, while some athletics correspondents from Fleet Street newspapers chose to attend track cycling in Manchester or motor racing in Spain on the same weekend.
A couple of years later, when Bydgoszcz first staged the World Cross in 2010, an IAAF official joked at the pre-event press conference: “Welcome to the Kenyan champs.” European athletes were already skipping the event in their droves but when the event returned to Bydgoszcz in 2013 (pictured below) neither Russia, Germany, Ukraine nor any Nordic or Baltic nations sent a team.
Disappointingly, despite Denmark’s best efforts, many athletes have once again chosen to miss this week’s event in Aarhus. There are no runners from Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands or Hungary in the official entry lists, while Germany, Norway, Portugal, Turkey and Switzerland are fielding literally a one-athlete team.
On the good side, 67 nations have a presence in the races. And those with rose-tinted glasses might be interested to know the first World Cross in 1973 featured athletes from just 21 countries with the number rising over the subsequent decades to 33 in 1983, 54 in 1993 and 65 in 2003. Point is, the event has never drawn anywhere near the total number of 214 IAAF member nations.
A handful of hardcore countries continue to give the event great support, too, notably the United States, Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Japan, east African nations (naturally, given their success) and Australia – the latter rewarded recently by being given the job of staging the next World Cross in two years’ time.
So will the athletes from absent nations wish they had raced this week? In years to come, will Farah regret not trying to win the World Cross title when he was at his peak?
As he prepares for the Virgin Money London Marathon, perhaps Farah will catch some of the action from Aarhus online and feel a touch of envy. The eyes of the IOC will also be watching on Saturday with a view to including the art of cross-country running in the greatest show on earth one day.
» The March 24 issue of AW magazine features in an in-depth preview to the 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus