Sonia O'Sullivan winning at the 1998 World Cross Country Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Edinburgh, Scotland

McColgan and O’Sullivan bear witness to change – Edinburgh 2008

It was a meeting of long distance running generations. Six athletes representing cross country’s competitive past, present and future composed the head table at yesterday’s IAAF Press Conference which formally opened proceedings at this weekend’s 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

Click here for press conference summary

Zersenay Tadese (ERI) and Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH), two East African exponents of world class track, road and country running stood for the present, while two talented British juniors - Emily Pidgeon and David Forrester - a possible future elite.

Representing the older generation yesterday, two of the world’s greatest distance runners of the last couple of decades, Scotland’s Liz McColgan and Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan sat to either side of the two British 18-year-olds.

Both have a host of titles and awards to their names. McColgan’s 1991 World 10,000m championship victory, and O’Sullivan 1995 World 5000m title, the pinnacles of remarkable careers on the track.

Arguably though the zenith of O’Sullivan’s powers were witnessed in 1998 at the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech, Morocco, when in the opening year of the now defunct short course race, O’Sullivan not only strolled away with that crown but took the long course race gold as well.

Then it had already been four years since the last European winner of the women’s individual title (Albertina Dias of Portugal, 1993), and for O’Sullivan to go to Africa, a tough away-match to use football parlance, in any concept of long distance running challenges, and come away dominant (14 secs in the short race, 3 secs in the long race her margins of victory) was remarkable.

In 1987, the last year in which Scotland was represented as an individual Home Countries team at the World Cross before amalgamation with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland as team GBR & NI, Liz McColgan (then Lynch) brought home one of her two global cross country medals. Silver was her reward in a close contest with France’s Annette Sergent on the race course in Warsaw, Poland.

21-years-ago cross country running was a different world. In terms of the women’s race at the World Cross it was not to be until 1991, the year in which McColgan won her second medal (bronze) that Africa in the guise of Derartu Tulu was to make its way on to the rostrum (silver).

It was a period which represented a changing of a continental guard in terms of dominance of the World Cross Country Championships, and since Kenyan Hellen Chepngeno’s win in 1994, Africa has not looked back. O’Sullivan’s 1998 win, Paula Radcliffe’s 2001 and 2002 crowns, and Benita Johnson’s unexpected romp to victory through Brussels’ muddy parkland in 2004, the only non-African victors in the women’s long race in 14 championships!

At yesterday’s conference both McColgan, and O Sullivan insisted that it was not an irreversible situation. The African athletes are beatable.

"It's not about being afraid of the athletes, it's about not being afraid to train hard," McColgan, former Chair of Scottish Athletics, passionately confirmed.

O'Sullivan, here in a new roll as Australian team coach at these championships, was in agreement. The Australian system instilled a self-belief that meant their athletes were not scared.

Reflecting on the relative success of Australian distance runners in the last decade - Johnson but also Craig Mottram and the recently crowned World Indoor 800m champion Tamsyn Lewis - O’Sullivan commented, "the group training effect is useful. When you're training day in day out, it can make it easier. It's not supposed to be easy but it does help.”

Beatable or not, it is unthinkable that the sport will return to a position where in the 1970s Europeans made up nearly 80% of the competitors at the World Cross Country Championships. Today Europe only accounts for less than 30%.

In their competitive careers and since, McColgan and O’Sullivan have been witnesses to a seismic shift in the balance of power in the sport of cross country running. They have returned this weekend to their cross country roots, the European fibers of which in overall endurance terms are withered but we hope are not beyond nurturing.

Chris Turner
IAAF Editorial Senior Manager