A Modest Proposal to Bring Cross Country to the Olympics


Slogging along Sunday afternoon in what was becoming a steady rain, I suddenly realized what must be done to bring the sport of cross country to the Olympics.

In case you have not been following recent developments, let me bring you up to speed. A few weeks ago, Sebastian Coe — two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, former world record holder in multiple middle distance events, leader of London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics, chairman of the London Organizing Committee once the games were awarded to the city, Vice President of IAAF, and a likely candidate to become president of that organization in 2015 — made remarks to the effect that it wouldn’t be so bad to bring cross country to the Winter Olympics. Lord Coe’s idea of making cross country a part of the Winter Olympics sounds almost plausible; in most of the world, cross country takes place during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months. Furthermore, adding it to the Winter Games would, with one fell swoop, make the Winter Olympiad relevant to the continent of Africa, an untapped billion-person market.

There’s only one problem with the idea (well, there are a lot of problems, but only one that matters): the IAAF has considered this before, and considers it a non-starter because the Olympic Charter states that only those sports that take place on snow or ice are eligible for the Winter games. While some might argue that cross country races are, occasionally, run in the snow (c.f., 1992 IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park), the sport is not meant for snow, and we all know it. If it were, it would become snow shoeing and we’d be having a different discussion.

No, while provocative, Coe’s idea has about the same chance of being adopted as I have of medaling in Snowboard Slopestyle at the 2018 Games.

One might wonder why Cross Country isn’t in the Summer Games already. Actually, it used to be, but it was tossed out after a short and unlucky history. Cross Country was first contested in 1912 at the Stockholm Games as part of the Athletics program. There was a single race of about 12 kilometers that started and finished in the Olympic Stadium, and followed a rugged course that included forest trails with steep inclined and descents and many natural obstacles . In an odd twist, the hosts did not reveal the course to the competitors in advance, so most of the runners were just following ribbons through the woods, with little idea of where they were. Oddly enough, the top seven places were taken by Finns and Swedes, with Finland’s Hannes Kolehmainen (who also won the 5000 and 10,000) getting the gold, and Sweden taking the team title.

In the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, Finland’s Paavo Nurmi won gold and Finland also took the team title. Once again, the race was dominated by the Scandinavian countries (the top three finishers and eight of the top fourteen were from Finland or Sweden). Oddly, the race distance was supposed to be 10 kilometers but ended up being a little longer than 8k, and had a winning time of 27:15, almost 20 minutes faster than the winning time at the 1912 Games.

And then came 1924 and disaster at the Paris Games. The cross country event was held on what has been described as one of the hottest days in Parisian history, with temperatures nearing 40 C (103 F). Adding to the runner’s misery, the course apparently took runners near an industrial plant spewing noxious fumes. Of the 38 runners who started the race, only 15 finished. According to some accounts, two runners were pronounced dead on the scene before being revived somehow. Defending his 1920 gold, Paavo Nurmi won the race in a time of 32:54, a minute and a half ahead of his countryman Ville Ritola. Far back in third was the first and only non-Scandinavian to ever medal in cross country, Earl Johnson of the United States. Johnson was also the first nationally prominent black distance runner in the U.S., and his accomplishments included winning the 1921 AAU cross country championships the 5-mile road championships three straight years from 1921-1923. His individual bronze medal helped the U.S. take the silver medal in the team competition.

The carnage from the 1924 race doomed cross country. It was dropped from the games in 1928, and has never appeared since. There have been many attempts to bring it back, but the idea — like a cross country runner in the mud without the proper spikes — has never gained traction.

With all of this on my mind, I didn’t look where I was going and ran straight into a deep puddle. As my foot felt the sudden shock of the cold water instantly penetrating my thin socks, the idea came to me. What we really need is a SPRING Olympics, for those sports intended to be contested on (or in) MUD.

Think of it: The Spring Olympics could host Rugby, Cross Country, Mud Wrestling, Touch Football, and of course, Tug-of-War. (Tug-of-War used to be part of the Summer Olympics, too, as it turns out). I’m sure we can think of other muddy sports to include.

But why stop there? The Summer Olympics is too big now, so why not carve up the current Summer Games and have a FALL Olympics, too? Four seasons, four Olympics, each happening every four years to create a rotating schedule so there’s an Olympic Games happening every year.

  • Winter – Ice and Snow sports
  • Spring – Mud sports
  • Summer – Outdoor and water sports
  • Fall – Indoor sports (Basketball, Indoor Volleyball, Handball, Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, Weightlifting, etc.)

With smaller Olympiads, smaller cities would be eager to host. With a better distribution of sports across seasons and Olympiads, there would no longer be any reason to eliminate Track & Field fan favorites like the triple jump and the 20K race walk. And best of all, Cross Country would have a natural home and could make a triumphant return to Olympus.

Lord Coe, if you’re reading this, give me a ring so we can iron out the details. You can even tell your buddies at the IAAF that it was your idea.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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