MonteCarloThe 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne-La Broye, 29-30 March, will not only determine the present day hierarchy of world cross country running, but also celebrate 30 years of the oldest event on the IAAF World Athletics Series calendar.
On 17 March 1973, the inaugural IAAF World Cross Country Championships took place in Waregem, Belgium attracting a total of 21 countries and 285 athletes, and there were wins for Scotland’s Jim Brown (Junior), Paola Pigni-Cacchi of Italy (women) and Finland’s Pekka Päivärinta. (The Women’s junior race was introduced in 1989).
Since this bold but small beginning, 43 men and 28 women have become individual World Cross Country Champions, with a total of 8385 athletes from 154 countries competing in the 30 editions which have taken place.
In many respects, the IAAF World Cross Country Championships represent the most international of all disciplines on the sporting, let alone Athletics calendar. Over 750 athletes from approximately 70 nations will be represented in Lausanne this year.
There is a natural equality about the whole discipline of cross country running. No specialist equipment is required, and so long as a runner can find a vest and a pair of shorts, they are on a level competitive footing with anyone else in the world. As Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia, the men’s World Junior champion in Dublin proved last year, you don’t even need a pair of fancy running spikes to beat the rest of the world. Bare feet are quite adequate, and can even be an advantage on the muddiest of cross country courses.
The IAAF World Cross Country Championships were born out of the International Cross Country Union’s (ICCU) International Championships which itself dated back to 1903, with the decision of the ICCU Congress in 1971 to transfer the organization of the championships to the IAAF, with the change officially being sanctioned after 59th ICCU championships had taken place in 1972.
Of the first three IAAF winners on that muddy, severe, undulating Waregem course in 1973, it was the victory of Finland’s Pekka “Latsa” Päivärinta which stands out in the memory today. After 30 years, the Finn’s victory, just one tenth of a second ahead of the Spaniard Mariano Haro - 35:46.4 to 35:46.5 - remains the closest in Championships’ history. The result of that race was recorded in tenths of a second but in three later races the first three all shared the same time to the nearest second – 1983 (men), 2000 (women - short) and 2001 (women – junior).
In Waregem, Päivärinta who was an Olympic Steeplechaser and 5000m runner, with personal bests ranging from a 3:37 1500m to a 2:13 Marathon ran in his trade mark cap, from which he gained his nickname “Latsa”, which is Finnish for cap.
30 years after his victory, the Finn is now a grandfather living in the small Finnish town of Kangasala, and was delighted to receive an invitation from the IAAF to travel to Lausanne with the rest of the IAAF family to celebrate this special weekend.