Runners unsure of European Cross Country Championships move aimed at creating gender balance

Sunday’s European Cross Country Championships will be run over the same distances for men and women for the first time

They’ve already billed it as the clash of the next generation, and given the quality of runners involved that is no exaggeration. It could well be a race for the ages too.

Because of all the showdowns at Sunday’s European Cross Country Championships in Brussels, the men’s under-20 race boasts three of the finest running talents to ever grace the event

In there among them is Nick Griggs from Newmills in Tyrone, the 18-year-old who ran himself within a few strides of winning in Turin last year, only to stumble just short of the line. He finished one second shy of gold.

To win on Sunday, Griggs will have to beat Axel Vang Christensen from Denmark, who two years ago in Dublin won this race by 25 seconds, before injury and illness stalled his progress. A fit-again Christensen will relish the muddy underfoot conditions expected at Laeken Park, in the shadow of the famous Atomium, even if the rain holds off.


Then there’s the already risen Dutch star Niels Laros, the youngest of this trio, running in the European Cross-Country Championships for the first time. After winning a brilliant European under-20 double over 1,500m/5,000m in Jerusalem in early August, Laros went to the World Championships in Budapest and finished 10th in the 1,500m final, running a Dutch senior record of 3:31.25.

Much will depend on how he takes to the conditions at Laeken Paris, but Laros’ enormous potential brings to mind another runner who served notice of his potential at the European Cross-Country. Jakob Ingebrigtsen won the last of his four successive under-20 races in 2019, before winning the Olympic 1,500m a year and a half later. Laros can target a similar step up in Paris next summer – that’s how good he is.

For Griggs, who doesn’t turn 19 until December 18th (narrowly denying him another under-20 season next year), the conditions might also prove tricky. After running Irish under-20 records over 1,500m (3:36.09), the mile (3:55.75), the 3,000m (7:53.24), and the 5,000m (13:36.47) this summer – likely another record of its own – he stumbled again close to the finish of last month’s National Cross-Country in Kilkenny, this time in the mud.

What is certain is that for the first time in European Cross-Country history, the under-20 men and women will race the same distance (5km), as will the under-23 men and women (7km), plus the senior men and women (9km).

All very different from the first staging of the event, in 1994, when the senior men raced 9.5km, the senior women 4.5km, and there were no underage races at all. Or from when the World Cross-County was staged in Brussels in 2004, where the men’s race was 12km, and the women’s 8km.

Last year, the women’s under-20 race was 3.8km, and the women’s under-23 race 5.7km, so while these all move up a distance to equal the men, the under-20 and under-23 men all move down a distance. Same with the meeting of both senior races, at 9km, the women now racing double of what they once did.

European Athletics have described this new directive as “a historic twist”, heralding a new era of equality in the sport, although not every runner I know is convinced. It’s not that the women of any age category aren’t able for it, but do they really want it?

Like most seminal sporting moments in our lives, I can remember exactly where I was when Catherina McKiernan won that inaugural European Cross-Country title in 1994: sitting in the back of my mother’s old Renault 4 in a muddy field somewhere around Tinryland, on the outskirts of Carlow town.

A gang of us from Dundrum South-Dublin had driven down to run the Leinster Cross-Country, over a distance which seemed to go on forever, or at least one lap too many.

Not long after, we were sat in the back of the Renault untying our spikes when Greg Allen came on RTÉ radio, live from Alnwick, in the north of England. Over the then 4.5km distance, it didn’t take long, McKiernan winning in 14 minutes and 29 seconds, one second ahead of Julia Vaquero from Spain.

Having finished second in the previous two editions of the World Cross-Country, winning was all that mattered to McKiernan, and along with Fionnuala McCormack, back-to-back winner in 2011-2012, is still our only individual champion of any age category, or indeed distance.

We were chatting about all this on Friday morning, McKiernan suggesting that while the new women’s 9km distance might also suit McCormack on Sunday, just seven days after she qualified for her fifth Olympics, running 2:26:19 for the marathon in Valencia, it’s not necessarily the sort of gender balance runners were looking for.

“Now that was a sprint, an absolute killer,” McKiernan said of the 4.5km distance for the women back in 1994. “And I probably would have loved 9km actually.

“But I don’t really see the point, making the women run that bit longer than before, and the men that bit shorter, that doesn’t make much sense to me.”

If European Athletics are so intent on heralding this new era of equality in the sport, will they be looking to make similar changes to some remaining track and field events?

Such as increasing the women’s 100m hurdles, over 33-inch high hurdles, to 110m hurdles, over 42-inch high hurdles, in order for that event to also equal the men? And that’s before they address the different weights and sizes of various implements in the women’s field events compared to the men.

McKiernan made only one further appearance at the European Cross-Country Championships, in Edinburgh in 2003, where over a 6.6km course, she helped the Irish women’s team win silver (along with Sonia O’Sullivan, Rosemary Ryan and Anne Keenan-Buckley).

When McCormack made her first senior appearance, in 1995, the women’s race was 6.5km, Sunday now marking her 18th appearance in what is the 29th running of the event, more than any other woman in European athletics history.

It also comes just five months after giving birth to her third daughter, the 39-year-old form Wicklow also extending her women’s record of Irish senior international caps in athletics to 44 – truly a woman for all seasons and distances.

For Griggs, Christensen and Laros meanwhile, racing over the 5km distance on Sunday, especially at muddy Laeken Park, may have little bearing on who ultimately becomes the best runner of the next generation. But it won’t take anything from the thrill of being the best runner on the day.