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Only 21 countries took part in the first World Cross Country Championships, which were held in Waregem, Belgium on 17 March 1973. Entries nowadays are more than three times that number. And only two African nations were in attendance – Tunisia and Morocco, who sent only male entrants.
No African runner earned a medal in either the men’s senior or junior races, with the highest placed being Tunisia’s Abdelkader Zadem, who finished 20th in the senior race. The pattern was still the one which had persisted throughout the length of this venerable event’s history – that of European domination.
The first men’s title went to Finland’s 23-year-old Pekka Paivarinta, who had finished eighth in the previous year’s Olympic 3000m Steeplechase at the Munich Games.
Paivarinta would go on to record a World record for 25,000m of 1hr 14min 16.8sec in 1975 before reaching the 5000m final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he finished 13th.
In the course of his career Paivarinta beat his illustrious fellow Finn Lasse Viren - who completed the double Olympic double of 5000/10,000m in 1972 and 1976 – several times at national level. But he struggled when competing in hot and humid conditions such as he encountered at the 1974 European Championships in Rome.
There were no such concerns for him in Waregem on that early spring day, however, as he finished in 35min 46.4sec, just 0.1sec ahead of Mariano Haro.
The 33-year-old Spaniard had finished second the year before in what was the last version of the International Cross Country Championships, and he was to suffer similar frustration in 1974 and 1975 as he finished with two more silvers behind, respectively, Eric de Beck of Belgium and Ian Stewart of Scotland.
The first men’s World Cross Country bronze went to New Zealand’s Rod Dixon, a bronze medallist in the previous year’s Olympic 1500m final, who went on to demonstrate his talents over a huge range of distance in a career that culminated in one of the most dramatic Marathon victories ever seen, on the New York course in 1983, when he overtook Britain’s Geoff Smith at 26 miles and went on to win by eight seconds.
The year after his bronze in Belgium, Dixon was a part of one of the all-time great track races as he ran a 1500m time of 3min 33.9sec in the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500m final in Christchurch but still only finished fourth as Filbert Bayi eclipsed Jim Ryun’s 1967 World record of 3:33.1 with a time of 3.32.2. Silver went to Dixon’s friend and fellow countryman John Walker in 3.32.5, and Ben Jipcho of Kenya took bronze in 3:33.16.
Belgium, with Willy Polleunis fifth and Gaston Roelants eighth, won the team gold ahead of the Soviet Union, with bronze going to New Zealand, for whom Dick Tayler backed up Dixon in 12th place.
Jim Brown of Scotland won the men’s junior title ahead of silver medallist Jose Haro Cisneros of Spain and Leon Schots of Belgium. The junior team gold went to Spain, with Italy – for whom Franco Fava was fourth – taking silver and England bronze.
The women’s race went to Italy’s 1972 Olympic 1500m bronze medallist Paola Pigni, who retained her title in 1974 under her married name of Paola Cacchi. Silver went to England’s Joyce Smith – who, like Dixon, was to show her range of talent later in her career by winning two Tokyo and two London Marathons. Bronze on that distant day went to home runner Joske Van Santberghe.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF