Why are our best athletes no longer in the running for the World Cross Country?

The event is dying a death, with numbers of participants declining each year

How sad and yet entirely fitting that even while writing this column it already feels dated. Because, by the time you read it, the World Cross Country will have been won and lost somewhere in a faraway time zone in southern China like the forgotten old relic it has become.

There is nothing worse than leaning on nostalgia for relevance, although why this once great and truly global championship has fallen so far off the sporting radar demands an explanation.

It may not be dead just yet, but it’s been slowly and shamefully killed off by many of the countries that helped make it great in the first place – including ourselves.

Some might blame the IAAF – the governing body of world athletics – for taking the World Cross Country to such remote locations as Guiyang, described in the travel guides as one of China’s “least sunny major cities”.

The actual venue, a racecourse 20 miles outside the city, at the not minor altitude of 4,183ft, may be suitably testing but the problem there is that cross country running has never been considered much of a sport in China, and definitely not a spectator sport.

Yet Guiyang was actually one of the last places on earth still willing to stage the event – the only bid city for these 2015 championships, when the IAAF sent them out for tender three years ago. The next World Cross Country in 2017, by the way, was awarded to Kampala, Uganda – which beat Bahrain, the only other country to bid.

Reinvention

It’s not like the IAAF haven’t tried to reinvent the event: in 1998, they added a 4km short course race to the traditional 12km long course race, in the hope this might water down some of the African dominance. It did, for a while, our own Sonia O’Sullivan pulling off a brilliant short-long double in Marrakech that year; but with the exception of Britain’s

Paula Radcliffe

and Australia’s

Benita Johnson

, African-born athletes have won every individual and team title since, long or short, senior or junior.

In fact unless a few of their runners ran the wrong way, Ethiopia or Kenya will have once again won the senior men’s team race, as they have done every year since 1981.

Realising the futility in trying to limit the African dominance, the IAAF went back to the long course only, in 2007. And still the number of participating nations, and runners, declined.

Then they went biennial, after 2011, and that hasn’t helped much either. Despite the $280,000 in prize money, and a slight increase in participants (413 this year, compared to 397 in 2013), the depth of entries for Guiyang was worse than pathetic.

Only six nations, for example, entered their full allocation of six runners in the senior men’s race (Algeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, the USA and hosts China).

There was not one single senior men’s entrant from Germany, Russia, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Poland, etc, etc – nor indeed Ireland, who decided against sending a single athlete; and that’s the saddest part of all.

Ireland drops out

Ever since the IAAF inaugurated the World Cross Country as its first global championships in Waregem, Belgium, in 1973, only five countries had participated in all 40 editions so far: France, Great Britain, Spain, the US and Ireland.

Well, not anymore. Despite our rich and glorious tradition, including John Treacy’s back-to-back victories in 1978-79, Catherina McKiernan’s four successive silver medals from 1992-95, and a women’s team bronze as recently as 2002, we’ve effectively given up.

Not only that, if the former International Cross Country Championships are included (which ran from 1903 to 1972) it’s the first time since 1937 that Ireland is not represented in some way.

The good folk at Athletics Ireland might say they're not to blame, and perhaps the talent is no longer there. But – in the same week they've been celebrating €906,000 in high performance funding, including €458,000 towards competition and training camps, and the €100,000-plus annual salary of their high performance director Kevin Ankrom – that they couldn't find one single athlete to send to Guiyang doesn't quite add up.

Of course there needs to be some incentive. Sonia O’Sullivan – a guest of the IAAF in Guiyang – this week suggested the World Cross Country needs to reinvent itself again, perhaps by including a continental team race, which may encourage more European runners to come back on board.

“I think the biggest thing we have to do right now is to get into the minds of athletes that cross country can lay the foundation for success later on in the year,” says O’Sullivan, who at no stage in her long career shied away from the World Cross County.

“Because it is important, it has a big impact on the rest of the season, and it’s something you can’t get in training.”

Indeed I won’t bore you with the ancient philosophy of cross country – the hardiness it instils, the sheer will it demands, its unforgiving test of character – but if anyone is wondering why we don’t seem to produce distance runners with the same heart and ruggedness as Treacy or O’Sullivan or McKiernan anymore, the answer lies somewhere over in Guiyang.

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