Andrea Seccafien is a Canadian 5,000m runner, Olympian and Canadian Running blogger.
Many track and road greats got their start on the international scene at the World Cross-Country Championships including Steve Ovett, Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah. These same runners would say that cross-country was integral to their development and later success.
But today, some of the best runners are reluctant to risk the lucrative allure of road and track seasons by competing at the World Cross-Country Championships. Numbers are falling. In the early 2000’s, the race would draw almost 800 competitors from 67 countries. Since 2011 though, the event has only been held in odd-numbered years. This has done little to boost interest with 560 competitors from 59 countries having participated in this year’s championship. Clearly something needs to change if the cross-country is ever going to revive its broad appeal and memorable battles of the greats.
To increase the interest in cross-country, some have suggested it be added to the Winter Olympics. There isn’t a World Track and Field Championships outdoors in Winter Olympic years, so athletes would also be able to prioritize the event. I believe it would raise the profile of a discipline struggling at the elite level by introducing it to a new fan base and welcoming more African nations to those Games. IAAF President, Sebastian Coe, has also advocated this idea in the past.
By introducing another major cross-country race, distance runners would be encouraged to continue it beyond varsity competition. Competing in cross-country does so much for an athlete: it develops strength, helps runners master racing by feel, adapts runners to unpredictable conditions and creates more savvy racers. If nothing else, racing off the track and roads makes athletes tougher and grittier as they navigate true cross-country conditions.
Having another opportunity to race in the Olympics would increase the marketability of distance runners. Contrary to what you may think, shoe companies typically pull back their marketing and sponsorship after an Olympic year. Why? Because it will be another four years before track gets that kind of exposure again…
That leaves many athletes, including Olympic finalists, without a major apparel sponsor.
By adding in another opportunity for runners to compete at the Olympics though, it would give them twice as many chances to take part in this global sporting event and thus increase their visibility to the public.
This discussion is hypothetical of course, and hasn’t had much momentum in recent years. The Olympic Charter calls for all winter sports to be practiced on snow or ice, which is a barrier for entry for cross-country. The IAAF had considered a standalone series of races in “winter conditions” to provide qualifiers and give legitimacy to the idea that the event could be contested on snow.
Some have suggested readmitting cross-country to the Summer Olympics, but with the already crowded athletics schedule, and talk of removing some “unpopular” events, that seems unlikely.