Imagining A Future For Cross-Country; Team racing as recovery strategy and a failed global summit
"Roger on Running," Running Times, February 19, 2014
By Roger Robinson
Imagine, if today's big feature event at the Sochi Winter Games was the Olympic cross-country race - an intensely competitive match-up between Kenesisa Bekele, Mo Farah, Geoffrey Mutai, and Galen Rupp, 12km/7.5 miles of top-level racing over snow, dirt, hills, and woodland trails, on a TV and spectator-friendly circuit, with team and individual medals at stake, and the world enthralled. Imagine then, Tirunesh Dibaba, Florence Kiplagat, Shalane Flanagan, and long-shot 17-year-old Mary Cain for the women's race. Toss in Olympic 3000m steeplechase champions Yuliya Zaripova and Ezekiel Kemboi, too, since their standardised track event is the one that usurped the place of real cross-country in the Olympics. Only imagine!
The case for cross-country in the Winter Olympics was compellingly made last week in Britain's Athletics Weekly. Of AW's ten excellent reasons in favor, the newest and spiciest was that cross-country would give the African continent winning opportunities in the Winter Games, incentive for more African nations to attend than the meager three in Sochi. To their list of ten, I'd add that cross-country is one of the longest established of all winter sports, organised racing dating from 1832. Curling is older, but the other argument worth adding is that footracing over natural terrain is the most natural, and most universal of all sports, and with due respect to Scotland, you can't say that for sliding big stones over sheets of ice.
Back in the 1990s, when the IAAF funded national teams to attend the then-annual world cross-country championship (WXC), they came from all over the map, Gibraltar to Fiji, Nepal to Zambia, 154 nations in all by my count, 76 teams in the peak year of 2000, all holding trials over whatever natural terrain they lived on, and then sharing a version of the old English game of racing from village to village (chasing from steeple to steeple). Thus athletes from 154 disparate societies were given opportunity in a world-level sport, competing in a straight final, without qualifying tournaments or elimination rounds. No sport is more accessible than cross-country. No sport fulfills the professed aims of the Olympic movement with greater purity.