Cross-Country: The Greatest Sport Not in the Olympic Games. Part 1

Two years ago Track and Field News published a piece titled Cross-Country Running in the Olympics: New Debate Has a Long Legacy. Following a thrilling international showdown at the Great Edinburgh XC, and with the sport more relevant than ever, it’s time to revisit the question with new details. Why isn’t Cross-Country in the Olympic Games?

Part 1: The Early Years

Direct addressment of this question hasn’t happened seriously in more than six years, but the history of the connection goes back more than 120. At the time of the modern revival of the Olympic Games by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, cross-country running was just beginning to gain popularity outside the four home nations of the United Kingdom.

England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States all had organized and legitimized cross-country running by the time the modern Olympic iteration appeared (including national amateur championships in XC and a blossoming collegiate scene). And soon, a “Cross des Nations” championship was held in March 1898, marking the first international meeting between two countries (the forebearer to the International Cross Country Championship; an event that would eventually become the modern IAAF World Cross Country Championship we see today).

It wasn’t long before Percy Fischer declared, “Thanks to the good offices of the British representatives in the International Olympic Committee, the 800 meters, the 10,000-meter run, and a cross-country race of five miles were added to the program of the Games of Stockholm 1912.” 20 months later, at the fifth Olympiad in 1912, a Cross Country Individual and Team Championship appeared for the first time.

The three editions of this event (in 1912, 1920, and 1924) featured strong running by the Swedes and Finns, two nations not represented at the International Cross Country Championship at the time, and shocked the British representatives who felt they should win going away. In all three cases the event ran as the cumulative end to the summer program; distance runners ran the cross-country race as a finalé to their track exploits. Finland’s Hannes Kolehmainen (1912), and Paavo Nurmi (1920 and ’24) were the event’s individual gold medalists.

But the sport of cross-country, which was (and still is to this day) practiced almost exclusively in the autumn, winter and early spring months, faced harsh consternation from the International Olympic Committee after the 1924 Summer Olympic event in Paris. That particular race saw only 15 runners finish out of a field of 39 starters. The combination of extreme heat, a tough course, noxious fumes from a nearby factory, and little shade from the elements (and lack of proper hydration) meant ambulances were on the course for hours afterward. Eight athletes were taken away on stretchers and two were pronounced dead from heat exhaustion — prematurely, as it turned out. The event was banned by the committee thereafter due to “safety reasons”.

It was only 13 years later, in 1937, that the International Cross Country Union proposed “the advisability of making representation to the Olympic Association to include a cross-country event in their winter program.” Further details appeared again in 1939: “At the council meeting held on the morning of the race [the 1939 International Cross Country Championship], further consideration was given to cross-country running being given Olympic status. The subject was discussed at length and on being voted upon the whole of the member countries favored the idea. The honorary secretary was asked to convey the decision of the council to the honorary secretary of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.” It’s not known when or if the result of this vote ever got delivered to the IAAF. Less than six months later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II was underway.

But the question popped up again in 1947 when the IAAF considered the International Cross Country Union proposal: “Ritter Von Halt said that the arranging of such a race could not be made because of the present rules of the International Olympic Committee. The council decided to recommend the congress not to accept the proposal. The various members of the council being of the opinion that cross‐country racing was a fine sport, well deserving encouragement, empowered the honorary secretary to study the question in order to find out if international intercourse in this event could be promoted in some other way.”

This promotion of the sport “some other way” had to do with the International Cross Country Championship coming under the auspices of the IAAF as early as 1953, when the IAAF secretary mentioned in a note: “In view of the International Cross-Country Championship having assumed much bigger international dimensions, it was felt that the race should in the future come more within the orbit of the IAAF.” Within 20 years the IAAF would take over the management completely, and the World Cross Country Championship would be the result.

But just prior to this change in management, conversation would stir again within various organizations to see cross-country running return to the Olympics. The fall of 1970 would see correspondence (and a response) printed in the Long Distance Log as to the advisability of this idea. This time, it was an American AAU official, Dan Ferris, who brought the question in front of the IAAF. “Despite the fact that I personally felt that it was inadvisable, I was prepared to vote for the inclusion of the cross-country event because the National Long Distance Running Committee had favored the proposal,” wrote Ferris. “However the Australian AAU which had originally proposed having a cross-country race on the Olympic program, withdrew the proposal before the matter came up for a vote.”

Ted Corbitt then wrote a lengthy response to Ferris, with eight points listed in detail (many of which have been commonly communicated in the years since in support of the measure of seeing XC return to the Olympics). Also of note was insight into who in the U.S. wanted to see this take place. Corbitt surmised: “The idea of reviving this great event was the brain child of past RRC of America President Scott Hamilton. He put in much work selling the idea through his worldwide contacts. The event had been somewhat forgotten since 1924. Hamilton found some interest in favor of its reinstatement in the Olympic Games. Probably a few runners don’t think that it is a good idea, but I have yet to hear of one reason against it that really stands up.”

But it still remains unknown as to who in Australia was behind the proposal and why it was withdrawn. It’s likely, or at least uncanny, that it was linked to the IAAF taking over the International Cross Country Championship mere months following the proposed measure. And in the years that followed, very little was printed about the sport returning to the Olympic Games.

In 1978, eminent journalist Marc Bloom made this mention: “I have not wasted time yelling at the Olympics for the absence of a cross-country race (although the renewal of Olympic cross-country would do wonders for the sport), since we have the annual International, and the International Olympic Committee does not hear yelling, anyway.” While in 1980 author Cliff Temple wrote: “There are now moves afoot, nearly sixty years later, to have it re-admitted to the Olympics, and with the considerably greater knowledge of both officials and athletes regarding extremes of temperature it is unlikely that there could ever be a repeat of the Paris race.”

But then, the trail went quiet for nearly 30 years…

This concludes Part 1 of a two-part series explaining the current status of cross-country running and a potential return to the Olympic Games.

Andrew Boyd Hutchinson is author of “The Complete History of Cross Country Running” (to be released in summer/fall 2017 by Skyhorse Publishing) and is the leading contributor to the site:

Back    Journal

Join Our Newsletter