© Copyright – 2013 – Athletics Illustrated

On December 9th a collection of former top-level international athletes met with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in Belgrade, Serbia to discuss how to save cross-country running from its continuing slide in global participation levels. An objective of the summit was also to encourage member nations to host their own continental summits.

Speakers included marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, as well as IAAF World Cross Country Champions Benjamin Limo of Kenya, Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan, Annette Sergent of France and Craig Virgin of the US. Former middle-distance star Lord Sebastian Coe, of Great Britain, chaired the summit. Coe is the vice-president of the IAAF and was instrumental in bringing the 2012 London Olympic Games to Great Britain. He is also often credited with their overwhelming success.

Despite popular media reports, the summit was not specifically about getting the sport of cross-country running back into the Olympics however; part of the discussion included Olympic participation as one of the solutions to the current slide. Paula Radcliffe told Athletics Illustrated, “Sorry there was a slight misunderstanding. We were at a forum to discuss how to save the cross country event from continuing to slide down in participation, stature, and global appeal. One suggestion is to try and get it into the Olympics but the discussions were not centered on this.”

Where confusion may lie may be in the IAAF’s efforts that are separate from this particular summit to convince the International Olympic Committee to admit cross-country into the Olympic Winter Games. Additionally, former world record holders in the marathon Haile Gebreselassie of Ethiopia and Kenyan Paul Tergat have lobbied the IOC to include the sport in the Winter Olympic Games.

Cross country was included in three consecutive Olympics, the final of which was the 1924 Paris Games. During that final meet, 23 of the 38 starters failed to finish due to the extreme heat and poisonous fumes from a nearby energy plant. The IAAF wrote: Cross country regaining its place in the Olympics would be the pinnacle of a series of proposals designed to help make the sport more attractive after a decline in popularity due to the dominance of African runners and the lack of success from European competitors.

Of the summit, Radcliffe said, “Lots of ideas were discussed such as whether World cross should go back to one event every year, styles and locations of the courses and venues and diamond league style series for cross country.” She added, “I think a lot of people felt passionate about cross country and there is no doubt as to its merits and pluses but it is a tough task to increase its participation and profile in the wake of booming road races, etc.”

Finally, Coe said, “I am really pleased that such a wealth of expertise in a single discipline could come together,” said Coe, of the meeting. “We have a challenge to maintain a global perspective on this aspect of the sport, which not only has great tradition but tremendous potential not only as a unique discipline but as a bedrock of endurance running.”