Cross-country running is one of the oldest athletic disciplines on the planet, but many people don’t understand the rich history of the sport nor see the difficulties it currently faces. This piece will try to explain the tenuous status of the sport and its attempts to soar again, and why reaching a “new” global audience with Olympic inclusion will be an even bigger challenge, despite its lovability.
Words By: Andrew Boyd Hutchinson
Growing up in Northern California, exposure to cross-country running did not elicit the common themes most runners associate with it. There was no autumnal changing of the leaves in vibrant hues that mirrored the Northeast. Rain wasn’t prevalent — so the deep winter mud was absent. In fact, it was a rare treat to even compete on a golf course. The most notable locale? The Crystal Springs International Cross-Country Course, a stark location where Olympian Nick Rose famously said: “It doesn’t seem like cross-country if you don’t have grass, does it? That ground is unbelievably hard. It seems better suited for motorcycles, actually.”
What gave Crystal Springs its appeal was its unchanging trails (and thus its course-time comparability year-to-year), and its brutal hills. Dyestat.com once famously called it the most challenging course in California, but what it represented to most was an endless uphill climb to adolescent distance-running. Right now, the sport of cross-country running is facing a similar uphill climb trying to see the sport reclaim some of its former glory.
Early on, cross-country was the sport to watch for fans yearning to see the best distance runners in one place. It exploded throughout Europe (and beyond, thanks to émigrés) simultaneously with track and marathon running, and was an easy admission to the Summer Olympic Games of 1912, thanks to the British representatives in the International Olympic Committee. For three iterations it flourished as one of the final Olympic events, bringing fame to the Nordic nations of Sweden and Finland (and notoriety to one Paavo Nurmi, who got individual and team gold twice, in 1920 and 1924). But once it was removed due to dangerous conditions at the 1924 Games of Paris, cross-country running perpetually disappeared as a standalone event.
For the decades that followed, the discussion of reinclusion was loud and frequent. But it wasn’t until last week that it appeared again — for the first time in almost 100 years — albeit in the Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. This was in large part to IAAF president Sebastian Coe, a formidable distance runner in his own right, and liaison to the London Summer Olympics of 2012. It was Coe who brought the subject of cross-country running making an appearance in the Winter Olympic Games back into the limelight, and it was he who remarked in a recent article in the Telegraph that “We want to create a new identity for a traditional event and take the sport into a different territory.”
Here is where things get interesting. The International Olympic Committee, who is in charge of adding in new summer or winter Olympic events, has specific provisions when it comes to putting cross-country in either the summer or winter Olympic Games.
Both the IOC and the IAAF are member organizations comprised of individuals who have passion, knowledge and experience within their respective disciplines, but who often have difficulty invoking mobile, fluid change within the sports their governing bodies control. In short, both groups operate similarly (and face similar challenges), because each was born out of a time when amateur-driven leisure activities like running were seen as a volunteer’s dream — and where money and respect rested in the hands of the provisional few who could manage everything. For most of the higher-ups in each organization, the attitude of “if it works, and upholds the traditions of the sport, why change it?” runs deep.
This made it particularly challenging to equalize the running distances within cross-country (it took until very recently to see equal distances run for each gender — a tradition more than 100 years in the making — one that was unique to the discipline in light of other athletics events). But the fact remains that the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations are each interested in increasing a market share (for a younger, hipper, audience, particularly) but are unable to mobilize large, sweeping changes due to all the moving parts involved with the hierarchy of power.
Today, the events that are cashing in on the weekend warrior participants are doing so because they are actively investing in the experience and sense of accomplishment associated with the outcome. In the multi-billion dollar industries that feature obstacle-course racing, mud runs, and marathons, cross-country running has failed to evolve. In many ways it is tied inexorably to the antiquated thinking that slowed the IOC and IAAF.
They weren’t treating the sport like a business (nor have they adapted quickly, with amateur rules ending less than 40 years ago). The amateur ethos tied a ball and chain to the marketing cap of athletics, at precisely the time other disciplines were shooting for the moon.
Case in point, the Olympic movement, which generates revenue through five major programs, has multiple tiers of advertising, and none of it appears cohesive. They have broadcast television partnerships managed by the IOC; commercial sponsorship, organized through the IOC’s worldwide “Olympic Partner” program; local domestic sponsorship, managed by the organizing committees of the Olympic Games; ticketing; and licensing programs within the host country. At each of those levels there are individual challenges with branding, marketing rights, and exposure time.
Boots needed to be on the ground locally, with regional buy-in with agents, athletes and media outlets, with approval from national and international governing bodies along the way, just to create an interesting event. Organizations like the IAAF and IOC needed an audience willing to tune in simply because of the “name” associated with the event, not just the investment made into it. As a first step, journalist Kurt Badenhausen explained the process of Olympic admittance for an event in a piece for Forbes magazine:
“The first prerequisite for a sport to be considered for the Olympics is to have an international federation. The federations fill out questionnaires that can run 100 pages long with information on gender equity, global participation and passion by fans as measured by TV audiences, social media, event attendance and more… [as such, a] big factor for the IOC is the appeal to millennials.
‘The IOC is being very proactive in recognizing the importance of that audience,’ says [Irwin] Kishner. ‘They don’t want to allow competitors like ESPN ’s X Games to challenge the sanctity of the Games.’
Olympic sponsors like the new sports that skew younger because they are chasing that 18–34 audience. ‘We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them,’ said IOC President Thomas Bach.”
So how does this influence the sport of cross-country running? For an Olympic bid, be it in the Winter or Summer Olympic Games, the fan-appeal is its biggest calling card. But there are certain hurdles standing in the way.
The debate for winter inclusion has a lot of momentum: African nations who dominate distance running are largely absent from the Winter Games agenda, the sport of cross-country is primarily a winter sport in much of the world, and the appeal of having “athletics” representation in each iteration (track events in the Summer Games and cross-country in the Winter Games) lends an even balance to the whole affair. But the IOC Session, tasked with decision-making for such matters has been adamant about one provision in the Olympic Charter for winter inclusion: the sports at the Winter Games have to be run exclusively on snow or ice.
This opens up an intriguing can of worms as there have been plenty of examples of cross-country meets run in the snow. But to create a standalone “winter” cross-country series as part of the official IAAF calendar? There was no person or governing body willing to take that responsibility. In an organization reliant on volunteer mobility to get things done, the idea of running meets in Canadian, Siberian, Icelandic, or Nordic settings consistently (with snow and cold as a permanent feature) highly improbable.
With only two avenues for Olympic inclusion possible, that left the Summer Games as the alternative. But that meant something had to be taken out of the athletics offering in order to bring cross-country in. In 2014, The Age, a Melbourne, Australia news source, claimed the IOC had been in talks about eliminating such track events as the 10,000 meters from the Summer Olympic schedule. According to Brian Roe, a senior official at the Olympics and World Championships, a meeting between “senior athletics people” took place in Europe, where the reduction of track and field events was among the topics. And according to the article, the IOC was seeking to attract a younger generation of fans to the Olympic Games. Interestingly, the IAAF recently moved to standardize the men’s and women’s event at the World Cross Country Championships to 10,000 meters — and replacing the 10K on the track with a cross-country Olympic race would certainly make the Games more exciting — regardless of which edition it returned to. But Sebastian Coe and other IAAF members of the board were hesitant to withdraw anything from the standard athletics calendar: there was already a reason those events were present on the agenda, and there had been a long history to get there.
However, the more common theme: that the IOC was fixated on making the Olympic Games accessible to a younger (more adrenaline-fueled) audience was an important marketing opportunity, and it was also intended to level the playing field for African athletes who had been dominating the upper tiers of international cross-country for decades. So long, in fact, had Kenya and Ethiopia won the world cross-country championship, that Great Britain (among others) simply stopped sending an international-caliber team to compete with them. In order to bring back the competitive features of cross-country that separated the sport from track and road racing — steeper hills, sticker mud, wider ruts, more variable weather — all of it was up for consideration.
Aarhaus in Denmark, site of the 2019 World Cross Country Championship, is set to be ground-zero for the new challenges intended to equalize the field. But like the previous edition before them (the 2017 World Cross Country Championship in Kampala, Uganda) where features were advertised like a ditch with water and logs to hurdle — sections of the course intended to be challenges the day of the event were conspicuously absent (federations were worried that athletes might be more damaged, than challenged, by them). The result, like they were for the Youth Olympic cross-country races this last week, was that East African athletes dominated the top results. If equalization was intended, the course in Aarhaus would face a steep challenge indeed.
But the bottom line, that local area institutions were shouldering the burden in order to help mobilize the sport of cross-country into this new direction, was promising in itself. As Ben Bloom reported in his article with the Telegraph: “It was the first step in what athletics’ governing body hopes will be a return to the full Olympics for Paris 2024 — exactly a century after the event’s last Olympic appearance, coincidentally also in the French capital.” A crucial first step up the hill that will only lead upwards to greater heights for the sport of cross-country if they are successful now.