The Decline of the World Cross-Country Championships
Not so long ago, the iaaf World Cross-Country Championships was an annual event in which the world’s best runners clashed in what was considered the toughest footrace on the planet. Kenenisa Bekele, Paul Tergat and Paula Radcliffe all won multiple world titles and went on to become world record beaters in the same year they won this race. Sadly, the event’s lustre has faded. World Cross is now held every two years. Few European nations send complete teams and the sport’s superstars regularly skip this fixture. The situation in Canada is no different. Missing from the Canadian squad bound for this year’s edition in Kampala, Uganda will be the formidable trio of Mohammed Ahmed (4th in the Olympic 5,000m) and two national record holders, Matt Hughes (3,000m steeplechase) and Cam Levins (10,000m). “We totally fund it, so that’s the starting point,” says Rob Guy, ceo of Athletics Canada, who appears resigned to the situation. “It’s there for those who want it. And we will continue to support world crosscountry, but you can’t force it on anybody.” Lynn Kanuka, the 1984 Olympic 3,000m bronze medallist, has been named head coach for the team. She is a huge proponent of the sport, having won a bronze at World Cross 1983, and would have loved to take the strongest possible team.
“Well of course,” says Kanuka. “And we would have had a really solid showing.
“It was really awesome when I was running. We won a World Cross medal with the women’s team in 1983. We all talked it up ahead of time knowing that if we put together our best squad, and we all committed to it, we would have a good go of it. When you’ve got the very best the country has to offer committed to the program then the others follow suit.”
Kanuka suggests that the financial lure of road racing is one reason for the lack of interest in cross-country. Another, she says, is the focus on getting qualifying times in early spring races.
“I’ve seen athletes and coaches opt out of an international experience at the World Cross level saying, ‘Well, we have to go to Mount Sac [in California] to qualify for the 5,000m or 10,000m, or whatever the event is, a few weeks later.’” she says.
“Some of these kids don’t make the standard and therefore lose out on making a national team and having that experience. What are we doing? How many people are going to be Olympic champions? Let’s strive to get the best out of ourselves by facing the world whenever possible.”
Leading the Canadian contingent is Rachel Hannah. Two years ago she was Canada’s top female finisher (25th) at World Cross and went on to claim the Pan Am Games marathon bronze the same year.
“I’ve done five national teams now and I think it has helped me prepare for bigger races,” she says with a nod to April’s Boston Marathon. “It’s always good when you get that experience because you never know if you will make another team. Athletics Canada has been really supportive over the years. So I try to support those teams and give back.”
Mo Ahmed finished 22nd in the 2013 World Cross-Country Championships, his only senior appearance. The fact that the championships are now held biannually and in the same year as the world outdoor track championships complicates matters, "he believes.
“If my number one priority is competing well in August,” Ahmed says, “there really is no reason to rush into training in the fall for a race in March that takes away at least two to three weeks of preparation for the track season.”
Others point to the domination of East African-born runners who normally fill the first 20 places as another disincentive. Prize money goes down to just sixth place. Some Canadian coaches also see the diminished attendance as a reason to steer their athletes towards a payday on the roads.
“We used it as a launch pad for a lot of international careers but a lot of the other countries that you might want to go and contend with at an appropriate depth don’t attend anymore,” says respected coach Dave Scott-Thomas. “The depth is smaller than it used to be. There’s also a lot of travel involved – China last time, Uganda this year.”
Most runners start off running crosscountry in grade school, but once an athlete reaches the professional ranks, attitudes change. Cam Levins admits he prefers not to travel if he can help it. But the absence of a true cross-country circuit doesn’t help.
“It’s not the same as an ncaa collegian having an entire season building up to a championship,” Levins explains. “We run the Canadian championships, maybe we do a race before. That’s not really the sort of preparation you need to face the competition you are going to at the world championships.”
iaaf president, Se bCoe,h as talked about the possibility of cross-country being added to t he Summer or Winter Games. Rumour has is that Winter Games officials are less than enthused with having athletics included. Certainly, an Olympic medal would increase interest . So too would an increase in prize money.
At present the iaaf puts up $280,000 for World Cross, with winners receiving $30,000, down to $3,000 for 6th place. The top six teams earn $4,000 to $20,000. Why not offer prize money down to 12 teams? That would surely encourage participation. Otherwise the steady decline will continue.
The elite women’s field at the 2016 National Cross Country Championships