Stupidity as it used to be!
Next 30th March 2019 in Aarhus, Denmark, will be held the 43rd edition of the World Cross Country Championships (that for naming reasons are addressed on the website as IAAF / Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019). It won’t come unnoticed that this edition will have a big breakthrough news, as mass races will be present on the same day and the same field as the elite ones. Not only metaphorically, as we will see later. A true and tremendous revolution for a discipline often perceived as traditional and unchanging through the ages. But how did we arrive at this point?
Once the most heartfelt event on the scene of non-road long distance running, practiced also by middle-distance runners and not only long-distance runners, is now an understatement to tell that its perceived importance by many is at least diminished. Together with the World Championships they shared the same fate many of the cross country races around the world.
But the object of this post is not to try to understand why this happened, so I will not concentrate on it. Is important to say though, that many changes in order to revitalize have been tried, successfully or not, in the last 20 years. To begin with, in Marrakech 1998 it was introduced a short race of 4km in contraposition to the 12km race for the men and 8km for the women. After 9 editions it was decided that a short race was not the answer to the problems of the cross country, and the format was dropped.
Since the 1973 first edition of the World Cross Country Championships, but also dating back to the first official International Cross Country Championships dated 1903, the Champs were an annual event. From Bydgoszcz 2013, they became a biannual event, in order to level it to all the other IAAF World Championships, that are held every 2 years. Another addition was introduced in Kampala 2017 with the mixed relay. That was not only the first time relays were present in a World Cross Country event, but also the first time a mixed men and women official event was held at such a level in athletics.
Still considering all the above changes as important, they were always produced in a contest of sport that didn’t change its perspectives, because exclusively pointed towards pro/elite athletes. The news that will be introduced in Aarhus 2019 aim at a totally different concept. It opens up the stage to the masses of the amateurs who run not for winning national/area/world titles, but already at a good level of competitivity. Something unpredictable no longer that 2 years ago for cross country, but that was first tried in the World Half-Marathon Championships in Valencia 2018 by the IAAF. The mass races held will be three: “The Sprint”, one 2km lap of the official course at full gas; “The Relay”, a four lap 8km race that can be split and shared with friends or run all alone for its entire length; and “The Toughest”, a 4, 8 or 12km mixed cross country and trail run race on a longer course that comprehend also the official course.
But the best is yet to come. There is one last race for who decides to undertake this challenge, the most attractive one, called “The Search”. Elites men and women races will be open for up to 400 athletes, comprehending the around 200 selected by the national teams. So basically, it will be given the possibility to around 200 lottery picked athletes to participate in the official world cross country race, sharing the field, the backstage and the starting line with the best in the world of cross country. The rules to participate in this race are very strict. The 200 semi-pro athletes that will be lottery picked, will have to prove to the organizing committee that they have run certain standards in the last 12 months before the World Champs and paid a subscription fee to the lottery (and a bigger one after having been extracted to participate in the race). If they are about to get lapped, they will be stopped from race officials, in order not to interfere with the race.
From minute one I read of this I thought how cool an opportunity it was. The second reaction though was: what if an athlete not selected by a national team, but enrolled in “The Search” lottery wins the race? You could think this as highly improbable, if not impossible at all. But I don’t believe it in this way. Especially in Kenya and Ethiopia we have dozens of runners who could win over 99% of the European and American pros, but only 6 of them for each nation can participate. What if a David Kiplangat or a Telahun Bekele (I just handpicked the 7th Kenyan and the 7th Ethiopian in the world 2018 10.000 and 5.000 meter lists), is extracted and manages to upset the field of participants and win the race?
I would personally find it amazing. Can you find something more thrilling than an, apparent, underdog not even selected by his/her national team to win in such a context and becoming the World Champion? Because it would become the World Champion, otherwise how could anyone explain that in a World Championship race, the first one arrived is not considered the World Champion?
How many questions can this eventuality make arise in the Federations’ world? To skip directly to the most provocative, is it Aarhus 2019 just the start of an era in which World Championships will see the best athletes on the field, regardless of their nationality? And it would make it fairer or not? Well, we just have to wait and see!