Cross Country Running Should be Included in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

February 1, 2014 1

© Copyright – 2014 – Athletics Illustrated

The Winter Olympic Games needs cross-country running and cross-country running needs the Winter Olympic Games. The fact that the historic sport is missing from the Olympics – summer or winter – is absurd, however; there is an effort afoot to lobby for the sport’s inclusion into the 2018 Winter Games that will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

In 2008 three of the world’s best distance runners made a pitch to the IOC to consider including cross-country into the winter games. They were 11-time IAAF World Cross Country Champion, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, five-time world cross champion Paul Tergat of Kenya and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie – the latter two are former marathon world record holders, “From our point of view, it’s a go; we love the idea,” said Nick Davies, a spokesman for the IAAF. “We’ll see what the winter federations think about it.”

More recently, in December 2013, seven-time medallist, Briton Paula Radcliffe, who also owns the current marathon world record, joined the 2013 IAAF Global Seminar on Cross Country Running in Belgrade, Serbia. She, along with IAAF Vice-President Lord Sebastian Coe – also an Olympic medallist, Kenya’s Benjamin Limo, Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan – a two-time champion at world cross as well as former champion from the US, Craig Virgin, discussed ways to bring world cross-country to global prominence again. Inclusion in the Winter Games was considered. “Doing well at the World Cross Country Championships was a catalyst for all my other successes,” reflected Virgin.

The Olympic charter only permits the inclusion of sports that compete in snow or on ice. Changing the charter could be a paradigm shift that the IOC may not be willing to make at first glance, however; cross-country running is typically competed in adverse conditions – some of the attraction and perhaps romanticism of the sport is about the conditions. It is not uncommon to run cross-country meets in snow and in near freezing temperatures.

The summer games are an unlikely scenario as they already contain many track events as well as the marathon and race-walking, which take place on the road. Adding cross-country to the summer games will challenge the 10,000 metre event as well as the marathon. International cross-country races for men are 12 kilometres in length and eight kilometres for women. It is possible and perhaps likely that some athletes will double, as they do now with the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races. Great Britain’s Mo Farah won double gold during the 2012 London Olympic Games in these two events. However, it is highly unlikely marathon runners will race cross-country or both the 5,000 and 10,000 metre events and then add cross. So it is probably best to consider the winter games as the option for cross-country.

The last time cross-country was competed in any Olympics was in 1924 during the Paris Summer Games, where Paavo Nurmi of Finland won, but many athletes did not finish because of toxic air from a nearby energy plant as well as searing temperatures.  It has been excluded since. Formal cross-country competition started in 1837 in England. At that time it was called Hare and Hounds – its history is much deeper than nearly all current winter sports.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) determines inclusion of a sport from several variables, weighted heavily towards how widely a sport or discipline is practiced world-wide. The IOC also considers participation levels during an Olympic Games. The participation numbers are more strictly examined when it comes to men versus women. For example women’s ice-hockey is played at a competitive level in just a handful of first-world, cold-climate countries. Whereas men’s ice-hockey, is played more widely throughout Europe as well as North America and is growing in Asia. Perhaps a sport’s potential growth, by being showcased in the Olympics, should be considered. Saying this, in order to weigh a sport’s appeal during the Olympic Games they first must be admitted – the increase in television and internet viewership may make that leap worthwhile.

The world-wide audience for cross-country should be considered by the International Olympic Committee. Virtually every nation has a cross-country running programme in the school system and there are almost no barriers or costs to compete in the sport, therefore one of the sport’s fundamental requirements is covered; grassroots participation and accessibility; the audience potential is huge.

Anecdotally, the Winter Games audience is currently limited – for the most part – to people that can relate to or participate in sports that require freezing temperatures, whereas world cross is often represented by nearly 40 different countries, half of which do not participate in the winter games. Countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Morrocco, Brazil, Algeria and Namibia for example do not participate in winter sports. Fans of runners from these countries will be drawn to the television or internet broadcasts of the Winter Olympic should they include cross-country racing.

During the 21st Winter Olympic Games held in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2010, 2,566 athletes from 82 nations participated in 86 events. Fifteen hundred and 69 of those athletes or 61% came from 11 countries, 24 countries sent just two or one athletes. The viewing audience, in terms of television and internet revenue was generated from less than one dozen countries. During the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games 10,942 athletes participated from 204 nations, 32 nations sent over 100 athletes each, with a few  over 300 and China over 600, as the host country. As stated above, many African and South Asian nations, just do not participate in winter sport; their fans will want to watch athletes from their country compete in the sport of cross-country during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Operationally, the organisers would require the least amount of infrastructure of all competitions. Cross country races require a two-kilometre loop course, flagging and markers to indicate turns, perhaps an obstacle as well as timing equipment at the finish and start lines. It is a fairly spectator-friendly sport that requires almost no knowledge of the game. Unlike many winter events, its results are not judged, it is simply a matter of being the fastest on the day; it is a pure sport. Cross country is a team event as well as an individual event. Cheering for individuals as well as teams is possible, therefore broadening the appeal.

The IOC will be hard-pressed to invent or include new events to fill or expand the current 16 day competition period within the core sports that make up the schedule. They have already added certain events that few people have ever had the opportunity to participate in at the grassroots level. For example freestyle skiing includes five different niche events: Slopestyle, Half-Pipe, Ski Cross, Moguls and Aerials. Alpine includes five more that are well-established: Alpine Combined, Downhill, Slalom, Giant Slalom and Super-G. It is understandable that Africans, South Americans and south Asians cannot relate to these sports and therefore are less likely to watch them.

Nordic skiing, includes seven different distance event and is the closest winter sport to distance running. The IOC would not include the above-mentioned fringe or niche sports or the closely related-to-distance-running-sport of Nordic skiing, if they did not attract a worthwhile television and internet viewing audience. So the question that remains is, what size of audience would cross-country running attract? The only way to know for sure is to answer the question by including this portable, affordable, accessible and world-wide winter sport in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games.

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