The great cross country running debate

During this sporting lull that is Lockdown 3, there has been plenty of time for sports to spend some time looking within and working out how they can emerge from this bleak period a stronger offering.

One of the debates that has been ongoing over the past few months has been within cross country running about whether men and women should be running the same distances.

On the surface, perhaps, quite an innocuous debate but it is one that has raised hackles in both the professional and amateur cross country running world and even managed to get the likes of Paula Radcliffe and Zola Pieterse (nee Budd) roused.

UK Athletics (UKA) started the debate in December when it started a consultation process with clubs and cross country organisers.

In a statement UKA, under the guidance of new chief executive Jo Coates,  said: “There could be greater equality in some cross country races and competitions by enabling all athletes access to the same opportunities through the race distances available to them.”

The statement continued that there is an “aspiration for greater equity in cross country in the future” but UKA is keen to hear the views of cross-country participants and organisers.

The organisation followed this up with a survey “to capture thoughts on how cross country can provide equal opportunities for all participants at all levels in the future”.

Changes have already been made at global level where the senior men’s race at the World Cross Country Championships was traditionally 12km while the women raced 8km, until 2017 when distances were changed to allow both sexes to race 10km. And the UK Inter-Counties Championships saw gender equality introduced in 2018 with men and women both racing 10km..

Scottish Athletics and some English leagues then equalled race distances in recent years but major events in England such as the National and English Schools Championships still have differences between male and female races..

The English National sees senior men run 12km and senior women 8km women and at the English Schools Championships this year the Under-19 men ran 6.7km and the women 4.4km women while at Under-17 level the men ran 5.5km and women 3.8km women.

Similarly the European Cross Country Championships has maintained a gender inequality. At the last event in Lisbon in 2019 the men ran 10.2km while the women raced 8.2km. 

A recent survey by the English Cross Country Association (ECCA) found that most runners were happy with men and women running different distances and cited that often when women’s race distances have been increased, the entry for the races has often fallen – up to over 12% in one instance.

However, UKA is determined to complete more research and push for distance equality. Their push has been praised by Run Equal, a body which campaigns for equal status in athletics. 

Dr Samantha Hartley, one of the leading activists from the group, told The Telegraph:“This issue has been derailed and resisted for years, but now there’s been a shift. It’s not a question of whether race distances should be equalised, but how they should be equalised.” 

“It’s all very well having a grassroots movement like Run Equal making noise from the bottom, but we need leadership from the top and that’s what we’re now getting,” added Maud Hodson, the founder of the campaign group. We really welcome the fact UKA is taking the lead on this and we will be looking to support this initiative in any way we can.” 

However Radcliffe, the legendary British long-distance runner who won the world cross country junior women’s gold in 1992 and senior titles in 2001 and 2002, has argued that UKA are fighting the wrong fight.

She believes there should be more effort on creating racing and training opportunities for cross-country runners instead and fears that equalising the racing distances for men and women could harm the development of elite athletes.

“It could have huge repercussions for the elite side which I don’t think are understood by the people who are dealing with it,” Radcliffe told Athletics Weekly. “I think they are not actually thinking about the performance side.

“I don’t see any elites asking for this change to be made. And I’ve not heard of elites being asked. I don’t think we’ve even got an endurance manager in place yet at UKA. So do the people who are pushing this through actually understand elite cross country?”

Meanwhile Pieterse believes that the sport should be focusing on improving its popularity in the face of competition from road and trail running, parkrun and obstacle racing. And concentrating on trying to get it in the Olympics, having failed in its most recent bid. She believes the sport should target the Winter rather than Summer Olympics to establish itself on a larger platform.

“I believe the wrong question is addressed,” Pieterse told Athletics Weekly. “Cross country is in a precarious position as it has to compete against road racing, trail and the parkruns. Constant new challenges are arising, such as obstacle running, which is gaining popularity.

“I believe cross country has to change and adapt to the times as many sports had to such as cricket and sevens rugby. The question we have to ask is how cross country can stay competitive in today’s world?

“I believe events such as the parkrun have led the way. Also, a return to the Olympic Games will benefit the sport tremendously.

“Instead of bickering about distances, rather aim to get cross-country back to the Winter Olympics. It will open the Winter Games to many countries who cannot compete.”

Radcliffe agrees. “Zola’s absolutely right – I would love to see cross-country have its rightful place in the Olympics – whether that’s Winter or Summer Games.”

“For me, the current women’s cross-country distance is a better distance and it brings together runners from 1500m and even sometimes 800m through to the marathon. You don’t get this on the men’s side. You won’t get Nick Willis turning out in the world cross, for example, but you will get Faith Kipyegon running it.

“The women’s model has actually been better than the men’s, so to throw all that out in the name of gender equality for amateur runners who want to be able to run around a longer cross-country race, there is a danger that the elite side suffers.

“When did we ever get so hung up on making cross country dictated by distance? It should be in the range of 8-10km (for senior women) and make it a good distance to suit the course. So go for longer if the course isn’t challenging and shorter if the course is more challenging. But we shouldn’t have to hit an exact distance. Cross country shouldn’t be measured.”

“Since they made the junior women’s race longer, the European athletes have got even further behind. Before you even get into talking about age group manipulation, the African runners just mature earlier and that gap is only going to get bigger if you make those junior girls run further. 

“When I was growing up I could have raced twice every weekend if I’d wanted – and certainly I could have raced every weekend – but those opportunities aren’t there now. Let’s work out how to get more opportunities to race – or even to get out and train at the minute – before we start fiddling with distances for no good reason.”

“The more often you do the races, the more you learn. There’s a technique to running on mud. There’s a technique to running downhill. There’s a technique to jumping over obstacles. So the shorter the races are, the more you can learn, because you can’t run a 10km cross-country race every weekend if you’re a young girl.

“It’s not right and it will affect your development. We need to look at what is going to enable the kids to physiologically develop into great cross-country runners without harming or overloading them too soon – male or female.”

“If you really want to satisfy the Run Equal people,” she concluded, “then put on a mixed 12km race at the end of the day and maybe look at whether the younger boys are running too far.”

World Athletics was disappointed that Cross country was not included at the Paris Olympics and issued a statement saying: “Cross country is an exciting and fast growing sport around the world so we are clearly disappointed it will not feature at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, even more so given the heritage of cross country in France at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games.

“However, we have developed what we believe is a really exciting mixed relay product and have been encouraged by the commitment from the IOC that they will continue to work with us to realise our vision of seeing cross country in a future Olympic Games.”

The last time cross-country running appeared at the Olympics was in Paris in 1924. Since then cross-country has not been included in the Olympics but since 2008 there has been a campaign for it to be added to the Games.

Its inclusion at the Games would give lots of endurance runners the opportunity to apply for Lottery funding that, until now, has been restricted to track and field athletes and marathon runners.

Seb Coe, president of World Athletics, has added his voice to the campaign, having run on the British Cross country circuit as a teenager.

The sport will have its day in the sun again – but first it needs to have consensus across the board about how it is run.

 

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