Athlete William Gardner maps out this year’s World Orienteering Championships in Latvia and provides a lowdown on the sport

The 35th World Orienteering Championships will be held in Latvia, across the capital Riga and a regional centre to the east of Riga, Sigulda, from August 4-11.

With more than 300 athletes competing across five disciplines throughout the week, it is set to be one of the most hotly competitive championships to date.

What is orienteering?

Orienteering is a sport which features high-paced, fast running but the course isn’t simply one you can follow. At the start competitors receive a map of the course, detailed with all the features in the terrain which they will encounter, and it is the quickest time from the start to the finish that wins.

With the individual races all being run in a time-trial format, athletes need to be physically up to the challenge, but mentally can cope with the pressures of racing solo without knowledge of how their race compares to their competitors’.

It is fast and furious, and a huge physical challenge; though if you don’t read your map and get through the terrain, you won’t be going anywhere. It is like a steeplechase, combined with cross-country, combined with mountain racing. It is the top three who receive a medal, but as with many Scandinavia-based sports, the full podium is the top six.

There are six races which make up the World Championships week, with four individual races of the sprint, middle and long distances (including one qualifying race for the sprint distance – starts for the middle and long are based off world ranking points), and two relays disciplines.

Below we take a look at each discipline, the favourites and the best British chances in each.

Event programme

Saturday August 4 – Sprint qualification and final
Sunday August 5 – Mixed sprint relay
Tuesday August 7 – Middle distance
Thursday August 9 – Relay
Saturday August 11 – Long distance

All races can be followed through the International Orienteering Federation’s live streaming services at liveorienteering.com, and British Orienteering will be live reporting each race as it happens on Twitter, with nightly reports on the day’s events at britishorienteering.org.uk.

Sprint distance

Kicking off the championships will be the sprint distance event. This is a short race of around 15 minutes, generally raced in an urban environment. Fast and furious, tight and twisting, runners start at one-minute intervals and need to have a combination of speed and technical ability to conquer the course for a win. They must be agile and responsive to ensure no speed is lost cornering, and powerful enough to get back to speed quick enough not to lose time.

The morning will see the qualification round, featuring three heats for both men and women, from which 20 athletes will qualify. This will take place in Riga city centre, being raced across a mix of corporate business centres, residential blocks and parks. Within these streets and park, the organisers have the possibility to add artificial barriers to increase the navigation difficulty.

The final will be held in the Old Town of Riga – a medieval walled city. This will provide a different challenge for the competitors, with city walls and smaller, narrower alleyways and passages to spot at speed likely to create more navigation errors than the morning’s qualifier. The speed will still be high though, and it will be an all-out battle of the fastest runners in the sport vying for gold in the first race of the week.

This will be Britain’s best chance of an individual medal in the men’s disciplines, with Kristian Jones (pictured below) attempting to improve on his bronze medal from May’s European Championships. Jones’ best result at a world championship is fourth in 2016, so is more than capable of the step-up, and with Chris Smithard and Peter Hodkinson also capable of top-15 performances Britain will look to get off to a flying start for the week.

Kris-Jones-orienteering-by-Alexander-Chepelin

In the women’s race, though a medal could be out of reach for this young team, any one of Charlotte Ward, Alice Leake and Megan Carter-Davies could be close to the top 10 on their day.

Favourites from other nations for the men’s race include the European champion and defending world champion Daniel Hubmann, and his Switzerland team-mate and fellow European champion Matthias Kyburz. For the women, Tove Alexandersson of Sweden dominated May’s European Championships and shows no sign of stopping now, though last year’s defending champion, Maja Alm of Denmark (the fastest woman in the field), will make it hard for her, with Alexandersson’s teammate Karolin Ohlsson an underdog for a medal.

An example of a sprint event:

The mixed sprint relay

Next up is the mixed sprint relay. The newest format in the championships, added only in 2014, it features teams of four – two women and two men – in an order of woman, man, man, woman. The course formats are the same as the sprint distance, with each leg lasting around 15 minutes, but each course is forked slightly to ensure that runners do not simply follow, and by the end of the race all teams will have run the same distance. It will be held in southern Riga, on the left bank of the Daugava river, in a combination of parkland and post-war urban development.

This is always a fast and open race, and the tactic of which leg runners are placed on becomes crucial as the race pans out. Many teams seek a breakaway on the first leg, as due to the high pace it is difficult to close gaps once mistakes are made and the chance to close gaps on the two middle legs has traditionally been difficult with more teams falling off the pace at the front through running too quickly and making navigation errors, than simply coming through the field.

The favourites will be the Swiss and Swedes, and with the most dominant team in this discipline, Denmark, suffering injury problems this year both will be hoping for a gold medal. Also look out for the Russians and Austria, who are a rising force. Britain will be fighting for a medal, and after coming fourth and sixth over the last two years will want to step up and get on to the medal rostrum.

Middle distance

Moving away from the sprint disciplines, we head into the forest for the next individual race of the week, and away from Riga we go to the regional town of Sigulda, an hour north-east of the capital. The Middle distance is predominantly planned to be a 35-minute race, though being raced in technical, dense forests this time can often only be met by the top, medal-winning runners.

The forest races all take place in the ravines next to the Gauja river. A mixture of spruce and pine forest make up much of the terrain on the high land, but the runners will often drop into the flood-lands carved out by the streams heading down to the Gauja, which contain a denser collection of deciduous trees, making running harder, and decreasing the visibility, so making navigation extremely tough.

For the women, it is Tove Alexandersson who holds possibly the best chance of gold. Though her rival from Switzerland, Judith Wyder, has just returned from having her first child, and after a solid European Championships where she picked up a sprint medal she will want a return to glory in the forest. Surprise European Championships winner Marika Teini of Finland will be buoyed by confidence with her early season success and could well pull another result out of the bag in the Latvian river-valleys.

For the men, defending champion, and King of the Forest, Thierry Gueorgiou has retired, so it is wide open for a different champion in 2018. Olav Lundanes of Norway loves the tough forests, and the 2017 bronze medallist from Ukraine Oleksandr Kratov is a technical master, but Daniel Hubamnn and Matthias Kyburz again could pose the biggest threats.

For Britain, Megan Carter-Davies will be looking to improve from her recent World University Championships results, and the fourth place she achieved at the 2016 Junior World Championships. Ralph Street was the best British man in the discipline at the European Championships, so will aim for a top-10 here.

Tove Alexandersson training in Spain:

Relay

Further along the Gauja valley, we come to the terrain for the relay. With steeper ravines, and varying forest types, this race will likely be slower going than the middle distance. The World Championships relay is run in teams of three, with each leg planned to last around 35 minutes, with men and women racing separately. From the mass start it is the first team across the line that wins.

Courses, like in the mixed sprint relay, are forked to ensure that runners cannot simply follow others. So, with bodies criss-crossing continuously out in the forest, the athletes need to ensure they stay mentally calm to deliver a performance for their teams. In the relays, it is the collective calmness of runners under pressure that wins the day.

As a result, the is traditionally Britain’s strongest discipline in the forest. For two of the last three championships, the British men have come fourth in the relay, and have their sights solely set on a medal performance. For the women, the team is only building in strength, and while a top six is expected, a medal will be desired.

Other countries to watch in the women’s event include the powerhouses of Switzerland and Sweden, but watch out for Finland, Russia and the host nation of Latvia who were fifth last year and will want to step up on home ground. In the men’s, France, who also always excel in the relay, will be a real danger, while Norway are the clear favourites, having won the last two championships, but Switzerland and Sweden will push them close. Also keep an eye out for Czech Republic, who like Britain excel in the relay discipline.

Long distance

This is the blue-ribbon event of the week. The first event ever held at a World Championships and the one every orienteer wants to win. It is as much a mental battle as a physical one, with winning times planned to be around 90-100 minutes for the men, and 70-75 minutes for the women. Packs do usually form in the terrain, with the start interval being reduced to two minutes in recent years, but the runners will enter loops designed to split them, each being run in a set order dependant on their start time.

In the same terrain as the relay, runners will have become accustomed to the physicality of the terrain (though some may have fallen by the wayside through injury), but holding it for an hour and a half rather than half an hour is a different matter. With slightly more distinct track networks in this section of the forest, the speeds could be higher than the middle, though the distance will determine this as much as anything.

The favourite for the women’s race is the indomitable Tove Alexandersson, the most consistent runner across all disciplines in the women’s field. Her biggest challenger will be Natalia Gemperle, the Russian who has taken numerous silver and bronze medals over the last four years but has yet to seal a gold medal.

In the men’s race, defending champion Olav Lundanes is the clear favourite to win, especially after his European Championships win. Leonid Novikov of Russia returned after a four-year hiatus last year to take bronze, and he loves the terrain in Eastern Europe, so he will be a danger.

This is the discipline the British team has struggled the most with over the years, but the best chance for the team will be Cat Taylor in the women’s race after her sixth place in 2015. For the men, Alan Cherry will look to step up from his last two years of solid development into the top-20.

Others to watch

This year’s championship, for the first time ever, will witness a mother-son pairing in a team. The Australian team will feature veteran competitor Natasha Key (who competed at the first championship in 1995) and her son Aston Key (recent unofficial winner of the European Youth Championships) who will race alongside each other in the sprint distance at the start of the week.

» For more on the 2018 World Orienteering Championships, visit woc2018.lv

» Videos by Göran Winblad on YouTube