When, in the early afternoon of 28 March, an army of over two hundred runners set off across the grass of the Barnett Demesne Park, in Belfast, an historic challenge will course through the strong and agile legs of Paul Tergat – the Kenyan who has dominated this discipline since 1995.
In the history of the World Cross Country Championships – celebrating their 27th edition, while the discipline itself is nearly a century old – no athlete has ever won five consecutive world cross titles. Not Alfred Shrubb, the Englishman who gave birth to this glorious athletic challenge ninety-six years ago, in Hamilton park in Scotland, nor his compatriots – Aldridge, Straw, Underwood, Robertson and Woods – who took their turns at holding the title until 1910.
It was on 26 March 1910, in Belvoir Park, Belfast, that the first chapter of this fascinating story was closed, with the victory of Woods. New contenders were entering the lists, giving the journalists of the day the chance to add some fresh excitement to their reports. From France came a certain Jean Bouin, who made his first appearance on English soil in 1909 and narrowly missed victory over Woods. Then, just two years later – on 25 March 1911 – in Newport, Wales, Bouin snatched a first slice of the Empire from the English when he won the cross country title.
Jean Bouin was a phenomenal athlete. In the same year, he set world records at 3000m, 6 miles and 10,000m and went on, in 1913, to set records for the hour and 15km. Who knows where his career would have taken him, had it not been interrupted by the Great War, which obliged him to run on much more dangerous ground: that of the battlefields on which he lost his life at just 26 years-old.
Though brief, marked by three consecutive victories in the cross, his athletics career profoundly marked the world of sport and showed the value of cross country racing as an essential part of the formation of middle and long distance runners.
This principle had long before been appreciated in Great Britain, where the practice of sport – and especially cross country running – was an integral part of youngsters’ lives; particularly for the members of the upper classes. The introduction of an annual cross country competition was a natural result, though limited in the beginning to competitors from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. France - perhaps largely through the insistence of the Baron de Coubertin – joined the British contingents in 1907. So the contest remained – giving birth to the Five Nations Cross, as it was known – until 1923, when Belgium was invited to join the club, opening the way to an increasingly large participation and the entry of Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
Nonetheless, the British continued to dominate the event, while Finnish athletes, curiously enough, never participated (or perhaps were never invited) in the cross country. For Finland in the Twenties and Thirties was an invincible power in the middle and long distances, with champions like Paavo Nurmi, Vilho "Ville" Ritola, Eino Seppala, Arenas Kinnunen, Lauri Lehtinen, Imari Salminen, LauriVirtanen and Volmari Iso-Hollo. Though they did not dislike cross country – Kolehmainen and Nurmi won all three Olympic titles between them in the discipline in 1912, 1920 and 1924 – it is probable that the climate in Finland, where the winter covers the fields with ice and snow for months on end, played an important part in their decision not to participate in the Anglo-French competitions.
So it was down to Joseph Guillermot to break, in 1923, the litany of British victories, which were to continue until 1946. Guillermot, who was just as talented as his compatriot Jean Bouin, was a singular personality: his heart was on the right hand side of his chest, instead of on the left like all normal people. No health fanatic, he used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. Despite this, his extraordinary athletic abilities enabled him not only to beat the Empire’s athletes in Glasgow, but also to knock out Paavo Nurmi in the Olympic 5000m final in Antwerp, in 1920.
Cross country, which had already counted numerous champions among its victors (especially England’s Holden), truly exploded onto the international competition scene in the Fifties and Sixties. The arrival of North African athletes, of French nationality, such as El Ghazi and, in particular, Alain Mimoun – the 1956 Olympic Marathon winner; Yugoslavs like Mihalic – the silver medallist in the same marathon; Moroccans with the talent of Ben Rhadi, who had the singular honour of finishing second to Abebe Bikila, in Rome in 1960; Belgians such as the renowned Gaston Roelants or Tunisians like Mohamed Gamoudi: all showed that cross country had ceased to be a purely British event and had become a cultural expression of the athletics universe.
This is truly a discipline which forms body and spirit as few others can. From running across fields rendered barely practicable by rain and snow, hurdling hedges and other obstacles, climbing improvised slopes and slithering down rugged slopes, the body learns to conquer fatigue while remaining alert. A moment’s inattention is enough to end the race in a ditch. The spirit too has its part, surrounded by nature and struggling to overcome its hazards, there is a return to ancient sensations which were second nature to the women and men who preceded us on the route toward the civilisation of today.
Can it be that the African athletes appear unbeatable in these events because they are so close to nature? Is the contrary true of the runners of Europe, America and Oceania who try to keep up with them? There can be no other explanation for the eclipse of Western athletes, as if the ecological crisis in this part of the planet had also provoked, alongside the decimation of the forests and countryside, the disappearance of those heroes of yesteryear.
The last western stars of cross country were Carlo Lopes, John Treacy and Craig Virgin. Lopes was Portuguese and ran just as his forebears navigated: crossing uncharted terrain. His talent as a distance runner, his rythmic and untiring stride, his incomparable tenacity made him one of the greatest runners of all time: from the 10,000m to the marathon, there were few who could keep up with him. I remember him at Meadowlands, on the outskirts of New York in 1984, where he once again – eight years after his triumph in Chepstow, Wales – won the world cross title, giving a show of endurance and speed which few would have considered possible in a man of 37 years of age. Five months later, on the streets of Los Angeles, he did it again when he became Olympic champion in the marathon.
John Treacy, on the other hand, appeared born to cross country: he seemed to have in his legs all of the energy of Ireland’s renowned thoroughbreds as they face the hurdles. He won two world titles, as did Craig Virgin – another long-limbed athlete, whose greatest arm was his rhythm – the first and last American to win the title.
The era of Africa, already heralded by the triumph of athletes from the Maghreb, exploded halfway through the Eighties, coinciding with a courageous decision of the International Federation: that of offering to pay the travelling expenses of qualifying athletes, thus enabling everyone the chance to compete.
Ethiopia’s Mohammed Kedir opened the series, followed by his compatriot Bekele Debele, before the powerful figure of John Ngugi burst onto the scene.
It was in Neuchatel in 1986, that the first of his five victories was to come (four of these consecutive, the fifth after a two year break, in 1992) and it was possibly the most impressive. I recall him running barefoot, his chest and knees thrusting forwards, maintaining an unusually long stride and outkicking Ethiopia’s Abebe Mekonnen at the finish.
Ngugi’s victory signalled the start of the reign of Kenya, which today seems as unrivalled as that of England at the start of the century. Ngugi has spawned some magnificent pupils in William Sigei and Paul Tergat and the latter could finally surpass his mentor’s achievements in Belfast.
Giorgio Reineri for the IAAF