Mike Rowbottom @ITG

Five years ago, the Danish Athletics Federation effectively re-connected the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Half Marathon Championships with rank-and-file runners when they hosted an integrated – and highly successful – event in Copenhagen.

The concept was not original  – the first World Half Marathon Championships in 1992 had been run as part of the annual Great North Run on Tyneside – but the Danes took it out of the store cupboard, dusted it down and got it back on the road.

Two years after that memorable festival of running in the Danish capital, Cardiff incorporated the event in an open half marathon race involving 16,000 competitors.

At last year’s World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia, the elite race was run in conjunction with an open half marathon for 14,577.

So there is one legacy. And this coming Saturday (March 30)  the Danish Athletics Federation will present another global gathering – the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Aarhus – with the hope of creating a further legacy for the event and, more broadly, future Olympic Games, and, more broadly, society in general. They are going for it.

Jakob Larsen, director of the Local Organising Committee at both Copenhagen 2014 and Aarhus 2019, is ideally placed to speak about the aspirations of these two events. And as he points out, there was an immediate, local legacy from the 2014 World Half Marathon.

 “It was such a success that we realised that if we did not do a legacy race, someone else would,” he told insidethegames.

Organisers of the 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus want to harness the same mass participation and energy that made the 2014 Copenhagen World Half Marathon Championships such a success ©Getty Images
Organisers of the 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus want to harness the same mass participation and energy that made the 2014 Copenhagen World Half Marathon Championships such a success ©Getty Images

“So within a few days we released a PM announcing the inaugural Copenhagen Half. Then we started discussions with the local club, which led to a joint venture… now the race is one of the major success stories of Danish sporting events.”

The impending World Cross Country Championships – just inland from the Bay of Aarhus on the east coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula – are set to become a new success story for the Danish collection.

”The IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships carries a historic tradition without equal in the sport of athletics,” said Larsen, who is also chief executive of Danish Athletics.

“Cross country running is where we grew from as a sport, it is the historic ‘blue ribbon’ event of distance running and it is where the winner is ‘the toughest of them all’.

“As organisers we aim to present a course worthy of such a race, we aim to attract spectators to create a buzzing venue and we want to encourage the spectators to get up and close, feel the intensity of the race and spark an interest in cross country running.”

There is already a big tick in the Aarhus 2019 box in terms of elite entry. Latest figures for senior men and senior women elite entrants are 159 and 131, respectively.  On the men’s side, that is the highest entry since Edinburgh 2008, when 188 took part, and it ranks as the fifth highest in the past 15 years.

The women’s figure is 131 – the highest since the 147 who started the 1997 senior race in Turin.

Critically, the Aarhus 2019 concept starts at ground zero.  It is a traditional championship course that embraces the historic challenges of the event. It’s muddy. It’s taxing. The constantly undulating route around – and at times over – the Moesgaaard Museum, is as authentic as the Viking artefacts within it, with its larger loops passing through woodland.

The Museum roof that rises on a steep diagonal from the ground, partly-grassed, is one of four constructed obstacles, with the others comprising water, mud and sand. 

Thus runners will encounter The Water Splash – a reference to a pool of water on the historical cross country course in London, managed by the Thames Hares & Hounds – Mud is Our Tattoo, Runner’s Grit and... The Roof.

All are included in the two-kilometre loop, which also includes passing through a 50 by 20 metres  “Runner’s Valhalla” fan zone tent. Beer will be provided – Mikkeler, the sponsors, being a Danish microbrewery.

A little farther along the course, Larsen and his team are establishing a Viking Zone, where men dressing in full and authentic Viking attire – minus the actual weapons – will line up either side of the course as runners pass between them. There will also be a miniature Viking village set up, with bonfires.

The Danish city had been awarded the rights to host the 2019 edition of the World Cross Country Championships in December 2016 following an audiovisual presentation made to the IAAF which included proposals for supporting races for 2,000 schoolchildren and a mass race which is expected to attract 8,000 runners.

Larsen told insidethegames in March 2017 that Aarhus 2019 planned to use mass participation and a more challenging course to help achieve the key aim of getting the sport back on the Olympic programme.

Cross country featured at the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Games in Stockholm, Antwerp and Paris, respectively, before being removed from the Olympics.

The last time it was held at the Olympics, most of the field dropped out in ferociously hot conditions.

“We want to produce an event which will reignite a serious discussion about the re-admittance of cross country to the Olympic programme," Larsen said.

“It’s not our discussion, but we want to enable it.

“The ambition is to present cross country in a way that will make such an impression on TV that the IOC will feel compelled to include Cross Country on the Olympic programme.”

Last October, cross country running made a return to the Olympic ambit when it was included at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.

Does Larsen feel, two years after voicing the Olympic ambitions for the Aarhus 2019 concept, that it has achieved its ambition?

Jakob Larsen, director of Aarhus 2019 and chief executive of Danish Athletics @Getty Images
Jakob Larsen, director of Aarhus 2019 and chief executive of Danish Athletics @Getty Images

“I’d like to say that we managed to do just that,” he said. “But it is probably more realistic to say that this remains to be seen.

“The Olympic programme is about so much more than a running event in Aarhus. The quota of athletes, the political aspects of shifting sports and disciplines are much more important. That’s why from day one we stated that we’d like to enable a serious discussion. To say more than that would be overreaching.

“In my opinion, winter Olympics would be the best scenario for athletics and athletes (and, potentially, also for the Olympic Movement), but summer Games are probably the easier fix, as this could probably be decided by athletics by switching disciplines or a similar solution.

 “Having cross country at the YOG in Buenos Aires was an interesting development, but this was not because of Aarhus. So let’s just say that we still hope March 30 will spark a serious discussion and that we will provide a showcase which may be better than just words about the greatness of cross country – ‘show it, don’t tell it’.

 “If Aarhus 2019 is a success, our job is done. The rest is up to the IAAF and the sport as a whole. We are still committed to presenting an event that will enable a discussion of including cross country in the Olympics.

“Cross country running is a huge sport, especially in the United States, but event character and presentation has pretty much been left for dead. Hopefully, we will provide a glimpse of what can be done, if you give character and presentation a shot.

“Generally speaking, I think we have managed to do what we set out to do, making a championship that has the potential to turn people’s heads.

“There are elements we thought would feature on race day, which did not make the cut. But, conceptually, I think we are where we wanted to be.

“We wanted to make an event significantly different from road and track running.  A tough course, obstacles, some innovative fan zones and event presentation in line with contemporary events in other sports are all ideas that will be in place on March 30.

“But of course, not all has evolved as we had hoped. Side activities such as a high-performance education programme, a revamped national XC circuit and an increased priority given to World Cross Country by European federations has not been as successful as we had hoped.

“Especially the latter is disappointing, because we need investment by all primary stakeholders if cross country as an activity is to blossom again. In order to convince spectators, participants and commercial partners to invest time and resources in cross country, we need to build an activity, which provides a reasonable probability of being  ‘worthwhile’.

“Thus, it is all about building a platform – but as long as the sport seems focused on the competition element only, the erosion of the platform will only continue.”

The current Aarhus 2019 figures tell the story of a healthy rise in terms of participation by European nations, with the total of 19 being up by 10 on the last total in Kampala two years ago. It has not been bettered since the 2005 version in Saint-Galmier, France, when 24 European nations competed.

From a global headline viewpoint, the race promises to be a must-watch. 

Uganda’s world under-20 champion Jacob Kiplimo, still just 18, will not defend his title in Aarhus on March 30 – instead he will be challenging for the senior men’s title against a field that includes Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor, who will be seeking a third consecutive crown.

But Larsen’s rapture is distinctly modified.

“We may see a record number of federations in Aarhus but it is no secret that we had hoped for a larger part of Europe being part of the race,” he said.

“European participation is up – true. I am not particularly impressed though.”

Kenya's Geoffrey Kamworor will seek a third consecutive victory in the men's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark on Saturday ©Getty Images
Kenya's Geoffrey Kamworor will seek a third consecutive victory in the men's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark on Saturday ©Getty Images

While Britain, France, Spain and Denmark are sending full teams, some other European nations such as Germany, Netherlands and Turkey are only sending one or two athletes. And Belgium, whose national treasure Gaston Roelants won the predecessor of this event, the International Cross Country Championships, four times between 1962 and 1972, and whose representative Mohammed Mourhit won the 2000 and 2001 titles, have sent no one.

For Belgium, this has been a pattern at the World Cross Country Championships for more than a decade. According to an expert observer of Belgian athletics, they will only send someone who finishes in the top 15 at the European Athletics Cross Country Championships if they are interested – “which is rarely the case.”

For example, instead of going to Aarhus, this year's Belgian champion Soufiane Bouchikhi went to the New York Half-Marathon on March 17, which was better for him financially.

Only 13 European men competed in the senior race at the last World Cross Country Championships, with Spain’s Adel Mechaal, 43rd, being the highest-placed finisher.

World XC; only Spain and Denmark sent enough men to score as a team. It was worse on the women’s side: 11 senior European athletes, with only GB and Spain sending enough to score. The figure for the women’s race was 11, with Spain’s Trihas Gebre top finisher in 20th place.

“I didn't really expect much. I have been in this sport for quite some time, so I think I have a fair understanding of the European federations,” Larsen said. “That being said, I hope federations will take responsibility for increasing the potential branding and commercial value of our events.

“In my opinion, events are not only a matter of identifying "who's best" – they are a window to the surrounding society.

“Not taking part is moving away from that window. Regarding athletes, I don't see specific athletes as focal points. It's much more about positioning the event as the star.

“Thus, from day one we didn't really see any athletes as "required" for success. But of course if European athletes choose to go elsewhere, it's a clear message. There's more value to be found elsewhere and that is what this is all about – building value. Not necessarily money only, but it definitely needs to provide value.

“In that sense, my personal evaluation of Aarhus will be based on participation in the 2021 edition – did we succeed on moving the WXC forward?”

Earlier this week Larsen told letsrun.com: “Right now, I would say some federations are disregarding the importance of the running community. I think they are forgetting the level of interest, if properly handled, this could generate within their running community. It’s especially European countries, I would say.

“European countries risk being disconnected from the running community if they do not back the running championships, like the cross country, like the half marathon. If they do not send significant teams, but choose only to go if they have a top-20 athlete, I think that’s a huge risk to take."

Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark will take part in the relay event on the day of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Aarhus in Denmark on Saturday ©Aarhus 2019
Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark will take part in the relay event on the day of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Aarhus in Denmark on Saturday ©Aarhus 2019

There has been a scaling down, too, in terms of the original estimates of recreational runners being involved – but the numbers and dynamics are still vibrant. Larsen is expecting around 2,000 recreational runners on the day, including around 300 for the National Youth Cross Country relay championships, while the School Cross Country race the day before is expected to involve around 750 runners.

At the top end of that market, for 999 Danish Krone (£115/$151/€132), any male runner who has broken 33:00min or woman who has bettered 37:00 for 10km within the past year can sign up to run with the elite in the main 10km race – albeit as non-scorers who will be removed from the course if they are about to be lapped by anyone.

 “Originally, we wanted to do a 10km one-loop course for the senior races. For a number of reasons we couldn’t follow through on this objective,” Larsen said.

“That meant having mass runners on the two kilometres loop, which of course is not easy given the difference of speed between the very best on the planet and a rookie recreational runner.

“We have tried to resolve this issue by having an entry standard for the 10km championship events for non-championships runners. The entry standards give all a reasonable chance to make it to the finish line without being lapped. Non-championship runners will be removed from the race, if they are about to be lapped – so there’s your motivation!

“For mere mortals such as me, we have mass race heats with no entry standards: a 2km race on the WXC course, a 4x2km relay on the WXC course and a 4/8/12km race on an expanded WXC course.

“The latter is made up of the WXC course, expanded by three separate 2km trails in the adjacent woods.

“You don’t have to choose distance (4/8/12 km) until you’re in the race. Once you hit the roundabout [grey zone in photo below] you pick a trail and return to the WXC course. This will give you a 4k race. Should you decide to do another lap, you can pick another trail...

The course for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Aarhus offers flexibility over distances for recreational runners ©Aarhus2019
The course for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Aarhus offers flexibility over distances for recreational runners ©Aarhus2019

“This means that the 12 km race distance will have 8 km unique course and three laps on the official course.”

Among the runners in the 4x2km relay will be Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark and, since 2009, International Olympic Committee member.

As the big day approaches, Larsen is able to take an informed overview of the impending event – and beyond.

“In my opinion the most potentially influential innovation of Aarhus 2019 is the change of perspective; not seeing the WXC as a competition, but as an event,” Larsen said. “Not as a matter of medals, but a matter of growth – in participation, in investment, in awareness and development.

“If this wasn’t cross country, the plans we have would be standard operating procedure. There’s really not a lot of what we’re doing that’s really ground-breaking – only that we are doing it with cross country running.”