It was the World Cross Country Championships at the weekend. Sadly, you might not have noticed. What was once billed as ‘the greatest footrace in the world’, has now become an obscure and largely irrelevant event - despite its global status.
Its standing has been diminished by its switch to biennial staging, hosted in far flung backwaters and the absence of star names. Which is terribly sad. Cross country running is most people’s first experience of competitive running.
It might not be a happy memory for many, but few forget the slog around nearby fields as part of PE lessons at school. It remains the purest form of the sport. What could be more simple than a race over the natural environment? People understand cross country running much more than they can the 400m hurdles, pole vault or discus for example.
There are no queues to take part in track athletics. Yet, there has been an explosion in off-road events in recent years, particularly in the UK, USA and Australia. Events like Tough Mudder are now massively popular. Therefore shouldn’t there be wider interest in the greatest male and female off-road runners on the planet?
Unfortunately last Sunday’s event in Guiyang, China was largely avoided by world stars and the international media. The event is drifting into anonymity. Yet, the potential is huge. As well as the wide interest in off road running, it also offers an intriguing catch-weight race for all runners.
Usually held over 12k for men and 8k for women and with the added difficulty of a natural surface, it brings together anyone from 1500m track runners to marathon runners to mountain runners. Imagine Mo Farah taking on marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto? Unfortunately, there is little on offer to attract these top athletes.
And memorable races from yesteryear featuring the likes of Paula Radcliffe, Paul Tergat, Grete Waitz, Zola Budd, John Ngugi and John Treacy are a distant memory. Without prize money and no real prestige, why would today's athletes bother? Better to focus on major track championships and major road races which now overshadow the World Cross?
The IAAF needs to make a concerted effort to bring the World Cross Country Championships back to a standing it deserves. Rather than wait for countries to bid for the event, why not take the event to the places it is going to gain maximum attention? New York’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park? Maybe even jazz it up with some fire and water trenches?
Throw in a winner-takes-all prize and let’s see Mo Farah and the world’s great runners show the world who the REAL tough mudders are.