Australia's Johnson (centre) battles with Ethiopia's Kidane (848) and Timbilili (KEN) (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Fukuoka, Japan

Cross Country - athletics at its purest

After this weekend the World Cross Country Championships reverts back to its old one day format. Taking a personal look at past, present and a possible future, British journalist Steven Downes explores the discipline, which is arguably ‘athletics in the raw’, the sport at its most fundamental, at its purest level of man verses man, and man verses nature…

In England, we have something called Camra - the Campaign for Real Ale. Launched in the 1970s, its aim was to try to preserve the traditional pubs and independently brewed beers that are part of Britain's heritage, but which at that time were under threat from large brewing corporations with a homogenised product sold in identikit bars. It may be about time someone launched the Campaign for Real Cross Country.

Cross country running is just about as basic as you can get in athletics: you don't need any expensive kit, you don't need a track, some might even say that you do not even need any shoes. You can just step out of your front door and run. Primeval.

And the World Cross Country Championships, in their 34th edition this weekend in Fukuoka, also represent the first real form of global competition under the aegis of the IAAF. It was in the early 1970s that the world governing body took what was, until then, a pretty parochial annual International Cross Country Championships, contested mainly by Europe, the United States and some north African nations, and turned it into the truly global competition that we will enjoy over the next couple of days.

The first World Cross preceded the track World Cup by five years and the first track World Championships by a decade. Cross country, by its very basic nature, has proved to be an ideal entry point into international athletics competition for many of the world's developing sporting nations.

It has seen the IAAF take the word's best distance runners and stage some thrilling competitions all around the world, from Auckland in New Zealand, to Cape Town, South Africa, and now, for the first time, to Asia. Next year the event will be staged in Mombassa, a fitting setting in Kenya, a nation that has provided so many great champions and memories over the past three and a half decades of the World Cross.

But, as the event is about to undergo a bit of an overhaul from next year, might it also be time to reconsider cross country from a far more fundamental basis?
Cross country, as a semi-organised sport in 19th century England, was often a simple paper-chase through the countryside, over hedges and fences, brooks and ditches, through mud and over hills, literally from point-to-point, in which the race was a real test of strength and stamina, and not just speed.

In the 21st century, too often, cross country globally has become little more than an extension of the Grand Prix track series. Flat, anodyne courses, laid out over tight circuits to suit the demands of local television producers, have tended to suit the swift, rather than the rugged. The racing has tended to the predictable.
The mumblings from Europe have been heard for some time now. The theory has gone that their runners, unable to keep up with the stars of Africa, have needed extra support, and so a European Cross Country Championships has even been staged. Not that this has had a discernable effect on the results in depth at the World Cross, which Ethiopia, Kenya and, more recently, Qatar and Uganda have come to dominate.

Yet it was not so long ago that Portugal and Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia and other states from the former Soviet bloc, and teams from the British Isles, would enter full-strength teams, senior and junior, men and women, who would contest the team events and be in contention for World Cross medals.

Except, notably, when the courses have been at their flattest, or the spring weather at the championships more temperate. Turn the World Cross Country Championships into a virtual 12km on Mondo, and what you generally end to get is a very fast race dominated by Africans.

But when the weather is foul, and the course has its fair share of mud and real hills - think Ostend or Belfast, Dublin, Brussels or Stavanger - then the outcome has been far less predictable, the African monopoly of medals really challenged. And, above all else, the racing has been thrilling.

Of course, the winners in all the races at those venues have been the best cross country runners on the day, for class will always show. But they have tended not to have things all their own way, the challenge facing them has been that little bit tougher.

It is perhaps no coincidence that of those memorable World Cross Country Championships mentioned above, four happen to have been staged by the Belgians or in the British Isles, places which were the cradle of modern cross country championships. Perhaps there, the organisers understood the premise of "home advantage", a term more usually used in the world of football. But the courses that were laid out there allowed runners from out of Africa to at least get into the races and make their presence felt. To borrow another footballing cliche, ironically by introducing more natural hills and a bit of old-fashioned mud to the World Cross, it "levelled the playing field".

In the four most recent of those championships mentioned above, there were medal winners in senior races from Portugal, France, Finland, Belgium, Ukraine, France, United States, Romania, Britain, Spain, Ireland and Australia. Diversity in action, and Africans far from invincible.

All of the events were able to be televised despite the tough conditions, and all still used relatively tight, TV-friendly circuits. With modern TV technology, and quad bikes available, anything ought to be possible.

So, the next time you hear a European cross country fan, or official, bemoaning their lack of success at the Worlds, invite them to stage the event as soon as possible, and on a proper cross country course with real hills, a ditch or two, and oodles of mud.

The campaign for real cross country starts here.

Steven Downes for the IAAF