Europe and US deserting World Cross Country stage


ATHLETICS:The dominance of Kenya and Ethiopia in the World Cross Country has persuaded European and US athletes to look elsewhere for medal success

BONO WAS right: there is a great roar coming out of Africa. He may have been talking about their emerging political and economic strengths, but he could just as easily have been talking about their distance runners – as if we didn’t know about their strengths already.

No other sporting discipline on the world stage is so utterly dominated by African nations – or more specifically, Kenya and Ethiopia. I could easily bore you all with facts and figures about every event from the 800 metres to the marathon, and how few if any other nations or even continents get a look it. All we really need to consider is the annual African showcase that is the World Cross Country Championships. Although it won’t be annual anymore.

Tomorrow in Punta Umbria, down in pretty Andalucía, the 39th edition of this once great race takes place, and if Kenya and Ethiopia don’t come away with all eight gold medals then something will have gone drastically wrong. The dry, fast course should suit them, but, then again, they can win in all conditions: last year’s event was staged over a muddy and undulating course in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and Kenya made World Cross Country history by winning all eight gold medals themselves – as in the individual senior men and women, the individual junior men and women, and all four team titles. It was an awesome display even by their all-conquering standards.

Since the IAAF took over the running of the event in 1973, a total of 924 medals have been handed out – and between them Kenya (275) and Ethiopia (227) have won over half. Even more remarkable is that they only became a force in the event after 1985. (I can’t help mention at this stage that one Ethiopian, a certain Kenenisa Bekele, has won an incredible 27 medals at the World Cross Country – including 16 gold – between 2001 and 2008.)

As if to underline their extraordinary depth of talent, the Kenyan team for tomorrow’s event in Punta Umbria is almost completely different from that which won all eight titles last year. All four defending individual champions failed to make the team, including the 2010 men’s winner Joseph Ebuya, who won six of his seven races on the European circuit this winter, but dropped out of the Kenyan trials in Nairobi last month. “It was too fast for me,” said Ebuya, who also complained of an upset stomach. Who wouldn’t, at the pace the Kenyans run?

Leading the men’s challenge this time is the 29-year-old policeman Geoffrey Mutai, who only took up running seriously four years ago, and boasts a marathon best of 2:04.55 – the sixth fastest in history.

What all this proves is that Kenya and Ethiopia have unquestionably conquered and divided this event between them – the big casualty of all that being they’ve killed off the interest of practically everybody else.

The World Cross Country is now largely ignored by the European nations, and Ireland is no exception.

Despite providing two former champions in John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan, and a four-time silver medallist in Catherina McKiernan, we’re represented tomorrow by only three athletes: Fionnuala Britton and Ava Hutchinson in the senior women, and Shane Quinn in the junior men. Joe Sweeney, the impressive winner of the national senior men’s title last month, decided it was in his best interest not to run, if that makes any sense.

At 26, Britton is a pure-bred cross country runner and won’t fear mixing it with the Kenyans and Ethiopians. She finished an excellent 14th in Mombasa in 2007, the second-best European, and after finishing fourth in the European Cross Country in December, could make the top-12 this time.

Now under the coaching guidance of triathlon specialist Chris Jones, Britton can definitely win a European title in the near future, and competing in the World Cross Country is an important ingredient in the recipe for that success.

Likewise Quinn, our most outstanding men’s junior champion of recent years, who also comes from good cross country stock in that his father and coach, Brendan, ran the World Cross Country four times for Ireland, finishing 11th in the junior race in 1978.

Unfortunately we won’t get to see how they fare. With so many Europeans staying away sponsorship has been severely hit, and so too has television coverage: the event is not being shown in this part of the world.

It’s not like the IAAF haven’t seen these problems coming, but they haven’t been nearly inventive enough in addressing them. In 1998, they introduced a short-course race in the hope that might attract more Europeans. It briefly did, before the Kenyans and Ethiopians took control of that too, and in 2007 the IAAF reverted to the long-course only.

There is still good prize money too – about €200,000, including €22,000 for each individual winner. But there needs to be more incentive for Europeans to compete, perhaps by introducing continental prize money, or using finishing position as a basis for qualifying for the World Championships.

What the IAAF have decided instead is to make the World Cross Country a biennial event, in the hope that might revive some interest. Yet that seems to have had the opposite effect: with no event next year, only one nation, Bahrain, has declared an interest in staging the 2013 World Cross Country. Truth is, the future of the event looks extremely uncertain – it’s in danger of dropping off the world radar.

“Sadly, yeah,” says Alistair Cragg, who finished 16th in the short-course race in 2004, and remains Ireland’s best-placed men’s finisher of recent years. “There is such a great history behind the event, but it’s hard to find a pure cross country runner in Europe or America anymore, because there’s just no career in that, no way of making a living.

“Kenya and Ethiopia have made it so hard now it’s tough to finish even inside the top-20. And as a professional runner it can be very demoralising, to finish, say, 60th, and yet still have a decent run. For a lot of European and American distance runners, the question now is what’s the reason? There is hardly any chance of getting a medal, even if you are in the shape of your life. There are so many other opportunities on the track and the road.”

So, instead of even contemplating the World Cross Country, Cragg is running tomorrow’s New York half-marathon, as part of his build-up to his debut marathon, in Boston, on April 18th. Cragg admits he’s had some difficult times on the track in recent years, but, aged 30, his focus has shifted firmly to the marathon, where he believes he may well make his greatest impact.

“It’s taken a few years to develop the base, build up the training, and finally I think I’m ready to take the plunge. Training has been going extremely well. I’ve handled the long runs well, the 120 miles a week, and I think I can make a much bigger mark in the marathon than maybe I did on the track.”

He won’t need reminding, but of the 100 fastest marathons clocked in 2010, 54 were run by Kenyans, and 37 by Ethiopians. If the marathon really is where Cragg hopes to make his greatest impact, then there still isn’t any escaping the Kenyans and Ethiopians. Will there ever be?