Run­ning De­bate

The De­cline of the World Cross-Coun­try Cham­pi­onships

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - By Paul Gains Paul Gains is an in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected sports jour­nal­ist. He’s cov­ered many in­ter­na­tional ath­let­ics com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing the Olympics and the IAAF 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

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