Philip Barker

Saturday's IAAF World Championships in Aarhus could be the final impetus for cross country to make an Olympic return after an absence of 100 years.

"The course of this year’s World Championships returns cross country to its original routes as the first extreme sport," said Wilson Kipketer, triple 800m world champion as an IAAF Heritage exhibition in the DOKK1 Aarhus Library and Culture Centre opened to coincide with the Championships.

Among the items on show is the "Kings Trophy", inaugurated in 1905 by Prince Christian of Denmark. There are also artefacts from Shrewsbury School in England where an event 200 years ago was the first organised cross country race.

Olympic 400m hurdles silver medallist Sara Slott Petersen, once a university student in Aarhus, insisted: "Wherever you are in the world, if you run, you owe much to cross country.’’

In the years immediately before and after World War One, cross country was an Olympic event. Although it was dropped after 1924, supporters have agitated for its return ever since and some have even suggested it might form part of the Winter Olympics.

A cross country race was included in the programme of the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires last October.

Runners contested the 1500m, 3000m and 2000m steeplechase on the track before taking part in a 4000m cross country race. The combined times determined the medals.

The format was not necessarily easy for spectators to follow, but the combination of track and cross country events was chosen deliberately.

"Cross country is the endurance bedrock on which middle and long-distance running is founded," said IAAF President Lord Coe.

"We need to ensure coaches understand cross country’s importance to an athlete’s development and background. It was a vital component to my success on the track. It is a personal view and a long held one but I would love to see cross country back in the Olympic Games."

From its origins in muddy school fields across England, the idea spread to the continent. By the end of the century, events combining cross country racing and hiking were being organised in France.

In March 1898, the French despatched an invitation to their English counterparts for a cross country match race to be held at Ville d’Avry on Versailles Road. It was only two years after the first Olympic Games of the modern era.

Olympic 400m hurdles silver medallist Sara Slott Petersen ©Getty Images
Olympic 400m hurdles silver medallist Sara Slott Petersen ©Getty Images

"It is curious that the first of England’s opponents should be French, who as yet are not renowned for any startling excellence in the athletic world. The French have acted with more pluck than wisdom," said the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London.

Even the French Cross Country Championship that year had actually been won by an Englishman called Alfred Tumner. That particular race was on snow-covered ground, the type of race imagined as a possible entrée to the Winter Olympics.

A party of 34, including journalist Harry Hardwick, travelled overnight by ferry to Calais.

The race was contested over 14 kilometres ‘’through forest park and woodland’’. The winner was Sidney Robinson, a carpenter from Northampton who appropriately wore race number one on his white vest.

"The air was keen and invigorating," he said.

In March 1903, an international inter-club race at St Cloud near Paris attracted Racing Club de Paris, Brussels Athletics Club and a team from Switzerland. The British were represented by South London Harriers. Alfred Shrubb was the winner despite "twice missing the trail".

The following week, Shrubb was racing in England colours at Hamilton Park Race course in Glasgow in a four-way international contest.

It was described as "an interesting departure in international sports" by Glasgow newspapers.

Shrubb was among the leaders from the start and is listed as the winner of the first international cross country race.

At first, competition featured only the four British home nations but gradually other Europeans took part. Then, at the Stockholm Games of 1912, cross country was introduced to the Olympic programme for the first time.

The race started opposite the royal box in the stadium and once outside "the way was marked out by means of red cloth attached to the trees and bushes along the route while pieces of paper of the same colour were strewn over the ground the whole of the distance".

After the first lap, they came back into the stadium and the leader was Finnish great Hannes Kohlemainen. He was soon out on his own.

"Practically speaking, he ran more than half the total distance without anyone in his company," said the official report.

When he came into the stadium for the final time, it was to a "tumult of applause".

The Swedes won team gold, the standings calculated from the individual race. The Finns took silver.

Although Great Britain won bronze in the team event, organisers conceded: "The course chosen for the cross country race was laid across altogether too broken country for both the American and the British competitions."

When the Olympics resumed in Antwerp after World War One, the course was over 8000m. Once again a ‘’flying Finn’’ came home first, Paavo Nurmi.

For the Paris Olympics in 1924, the race had unexpected degrees of difficulty, for it took place on a scorching July day. Nurmi won easily.

"He appeared as cool and fresh as if he had just completed a trial spin," said a reporter in the New York Times.

The course, which included a stone wall jump, proved more testing for the other competitors. The Swede Edvin Wide "climbed to the top and then fell down. With glassy eye and feeble limbs, he again scrambled to the top and again fell back".

The spectators intervened and Wide was carried to the ambulance. Other runners also needed medical attention.

IAAF President Lord Coe ©Getty Images
IAAF President Lord Coe ©Getty Images

"The fierce heat which prevailed put the runners under terrible strain," wrote a correspondent in the Observer newspaper.

Such scenes were bad for the image of the sport, even without social media. By the next Games in 1928, cross country was in record-book limbo as a "discontinued event".

Away from the Olympics, it continued to grow under the aegis of the International Cross Country Union (ICCU).

Before World War One, Jean Bouin of France had won three times in a row. He was also a great athlete on the track and epitomised the connection between the two kinds of racing.

Ernest Harper was international cross country champion in 1926. A decade later, Harper won Olympic marathon silver behind Korean Sohn Kee-chung.

Another English runner, Jack Holden, later became the first to win four international titles.

In the late 1930s, Lawrence Richardson, an English representative at the ICCU, drafted a proposal on "the advisability of making a representation to include cross country in the Olympic Winter programme".

This was endorsed by other members of the council.

After the war it was also discussed at IAAF level but Germany’s Karl Ritter von Halt informed his colleagues the IOC were not keen "because of the present rules of the committee".

Even so, the roll of honour continued to include star names. French runner Alain Mimoun was a regular winner in the 1950s.

Belgian Gaston Roelants triumphed before and after his 1964 Olympic steeplechase gold.

Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi won in 1968 as a prelude to his 5000m Olympic victory in Mexico.

In the 1970s, the IAAF took control of the event and transformed it from an international to a World Championships.

Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie ©Getty Images
Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie ©Getty Images

A women’s race had been introduced in 1967 and was dominated in the early years by American Doris Brown.

"I had a standing ovation from all the men," she recalled later in Runner’s World magazine. She had paid her own passage from America to race in South Wales. Norway’s Grete Waitz followed her as a star of the women’s race in the late 1970s.

Portugal’s Carlos Lopes won in 1984, months before his Olympic marathon triumph. In the same year, Romania’s Maricica Puica took the women’s race ahead of Olympic 3000m gold in Los Angeles Coliseum.

The Kenyan John Ngugi won the first of four titles in 1986, heralding domination by runners from across the African continent. Kenyan women have also dominated over the past decade.

In 2007, Mombasa in Kenya hosted the event for the first time, reflecting the success of runners from the region. Paul Tergat, a five-time winner, led calls for an Olympic return.

"There is no better forum than the Olympic Games. Unlike the track or road where surface conditions are uniform, in cross country you run with two eyes," he said.

Tergat was joined by another highly successful exponent, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, and Haile Gebrselassie, who sent letters to IOC President Jacques Rogge and IAAF President Lamine Diack.

"It would be wonderful to give the world’s best cross country runners the chance to compete in the greatest of all sporting festivals," they suggested.

Diack was supportive: "We are prepared to organise cross country in the Winter Olympics. It would be a good move for our sport." 

The possibility of medallists from African nations at the Winter Games was enticing.

One obstacle is the Olympic rule book. At present, clause six of the Olympic Charter insists: "Only those sports which are practised on snow or ice are considered winter sports.’’

The only cross country races since 1924 have been those held in the final phase of the modern pentathlon. Since 2012, this has also become a "combined event" in which competitors also shoot at targets.

Now though, the IAAF has its sights set on 2024. Many believe cross country’s return would rekindle the spirit of "Chariots of Fire".