Michael Pavitt

A sizeable amount of the battle for Aarhus 2019 had been won prior to runners even beginning their warm-up at the World Cross-Country Championships yesterday.

The organisers' “extreme course” had delivered headlines and stories in the weeks leading up to the event, whereas ordinarily you might only realise the Championships were on when it appeared on your television.

The promise of a genuine spectacle enthused officials, journalists, fans and, most importantly, the athletes themselves.

Flying into the Danish city with several athletes, you could already sense excitement about the Championships, with discussion centring on the course and its most challenging aspects. There was also relief that Aarhus 2019 was “not just another golf course”, which became a repeated refrain.

The Danish Athletics Federation, in collaboration with the IAAF, are worthy of a hat tip for delivering a course worthy of cross-country.

In a blog I wrote around two years ago, I bemoaned the boring courses in which athletes raced around one field after another with token obstacles, like a small log which could easily by bypassed.

Turning cross-country into essentially another track event, where the course made little difference, would clearly not attract the best athletes and ensure fans tuned in.

To their credit, the International Association of Athletics Federations had already realised this was the case, with a working group delivering a verdict that there was a greater need for innovation.

Aarhus 2019 delivered.

This ascent up Moesgaard Museum provided a major challenge for runners ©ITG
This ascent up Moesgaard Museum provided a major challenge for runners ©ITG

Viewers were treated to watching athletes tackle obstacles which appeared evenly spread out across the course.

First you have a water section, then a mud pit, then a sandpit. If that does not throw you off your stride, here is a 10 per cent gradient up the roof of Moesgaard Museum. Then straight down the other side.

Can you now do that three more times, please?

Despite making the course more challenging, it was sensibly done. At the end of the competition, the best runners emerged as the winners of a race, not a Tough Mudder-style obstacle course. The balance needed to be right and it was.

You can make the case that the World Cross-Country Championships were returning to their roots of mud and water, yet also pushing into the future with the use of the museum roof as part of the course.

The museum itself would have provided the centre point of television coverage, I am sure, just as it did for the spectators present.

For the latter, another event was created. One where you could sprint around 100 metres from watching the start of each race to positioning yourself by the hill to watch runners either struggle up one side or speed down the other.

You could easily walk to each of the other obstacles throughout the duration of the day’s five main races.

Talk of cross-country returning to the Olympic Games is never far away with athletics folk. The closeness spectators can get to the athletes is a major selling point of the discipline, with only barriers separating yourself and the elite athlete.

Hours after the conclusion of the elite events, the venue was still a hive of activity as a series of mass start races for the public took place afterwards, complete with booming music.

Participants were able to select their distance, ranging from a two kilometre ‘sprint’ up to a longer 12km.

The course provided a spectacle for spectators ©Getty Images
The course provided a spectacle for spectators ©Getty Images

Given Paris 2024 has considered holding mass start events for the public around Olympic competition, the IAAF could make a case that cross-country would provide another window of opportunity for organisers.

Aarhus 2019 will surely form the basis of any argument the IAAF uses to get cross-country included in five years’ time. Sentimentality might also help, given it would be 100 years on from the discipline’s last appearance at the Olympic Games, which also came in the French capital.

Another selling point the IAAF can point to would be their mixed relay event, which was held for the second time here. If you look towards the disciplines added for Tokyo 2020, a good chunk were mixed competitions, be it relays or teams.

You could envisage the IAAF making the case that they have a mixed relay competition but given they would need a cross-country course, why not add an elite men’s and women’s race as well?

There are other ways a format could be devised, whether there would simply be men’s and women’s prizes, with an additional team event title contested, as is the norm for these events. The IAAF has already attempted to test a format in the playground provided by the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympics.

Obviously, there are drawbacks which would impact cross-country’s chances.

Unless you are going to use a similar location to the cross-country mountain bike event, it is likely you would need a new venue for the competition.

Clearly this would place an expense on the organisers at a time when the IOC is continually claiming to reduce the cost of staging the Games. Compare that to all the urban disciplines and sports added for Tokyo, which are set to be neatly packaged in the same place.

A mixed team relay event featured for the second time at the World Championships ©Getty Images
A mixed team relay event featured for the second time at the World Championships ©Getty Images

Speaking prior to the start of racing yesterday, IAAF President Sebastien Coe spoke of how cross-country brings together runners from a range of distances. Looking at the start list, this was certainly true.

You had medallists in steeplechase and 3,000 metres races on the track facing rivals who would ordinarily been seen competing over half marathon and marathon distances on the road. As much as the results went largely as expected, with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda dominating, the meeting of athletes from across the distances created an area of intrigue.

A drawback in terms of the Olympic Games is whether this would be repeated.

Would a marathon runner want to compete in a cross-country event so soon before their major chance at success?  Similarly, would a track runner want to add a potential energy and leg sapping event to their schedule for the Games?

If it were included, the scheduling would have to be important to secure the best runners for the competition, particularly as the IOC would likely be tight or unmoving on the number of quota places they would allow.

In the build-up to the Championships, I saw a mix of pieces related to cross-country. Some suggested Aarhus 2019 would help to rejuvenate a discipline which had increasingly felt neglected, while others had touted the worlds as an opportunity to catapult cross-country back into the Olympics.

I am going to sit on the fence with this one.

The Championships certainly represented major strides forward for cross-country and I hope this approach continues to be replicated, so we are not here in a couple of years' time bemoaning the courses and the slow demise of the discipline.

I will stop short of suggesting Aarhus 2019 will help propel cross-country back into the Olympics. After all, as the saying goes, “one swallow does not a summer make”.

As much as I, personally, would like to see cross-country running back in the Summer Olympics (or, potentially, annoying the federations by putting it in the Winter Games), my gut feeling is that I am not sure the IOC would want to include it.

Their recent mantra has been “more youthful, more urban, and more gender-balanced. Cross-country scores probably one, maybe one and a half out of three on that front.

I have been wrong before, though, as who could have seen breakdancing’s dramatic rise coming?

Whether cross-country running is included at the Olympics or not, following the Aarhus 2019 model would ensure the discipline’s future takes strides forward.