Seb Coe loves World XC and wants more participation — but if that is to happen, he needs to change his approach

March 29, 2019

AARHUS, Denmark — IAAF president Sebastian Coe opened today’s press conference with a love letter to cross country.

“It probably goes without saying that I love athletics, but I probably, if I really was going to wear my heart on my sleeve, I really love cross country,” Coe said. “And I love cross country because I think it is quintessentially that element of our sport that sort of sums up the human condition. It’s endurance, it’s focus, it’s strategy.”

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We couldn’t agree more. Cross country is terrific.

The problem is, many of the IAAF’s member federations — particularly those in Europe — don’t seem to think so. Only four federations (Spain, Great Britain, France, and hosts Denmark) have sent teams capable of scoring (at least four athletes in the same race). When you consider that 16 federations sent scoring teams to the European Cross Country Championships just three months ago — and that World XC is in Europe — it’s an embarrassment.

Coe is aware of the problem. It was an anticipated issue ahead of the last World XC in Uganda, which is obviously harder to reach from Europe than Denmark, but the fact that the problem still exists in 2019 doesn’t bode well for the present or future of the sport of cross country, especially with the next World XC taking place in remote Bathurst, Australia.

Coe and LOC director Jakob Larsen

“It is our responsibility to make the point to all federations that this is a World Championship and we expect to see them there,” Coe said. “When we had a similar challenge in the leadup to Kampala, I was really clear. I wrote to each and every individual federation and said: I want you there. You need to be supporting our events, not just because they’re our World Championship events, but actually because they are an important pathway for your athletes. We will work on that.”

And while Coe shouldered some of the blame himself, he also called on coaches in Europe to emphasize the importance of cross country. If athletes want to compete at World XC, their federations are more likely to send them.

“What I want to come out of this great event is not just a fresh innovation around course design — and [LOC director] Jakob [Larsen] and [his] teams have done a fantastic job there — but it is also to try and bridge that gap of understanding that I think is sadly sort of growing as a delta between young coaches and the importance that they are now attributing or not attributing to cross country.

“…I don’t think there’s any coincidence with the relative diminution in performances in Europe over distance and the diminution in the importance attached to cross country by a new generation of coaches. So I think we’ve got work to do in all those areas.”

Coe is right that the athletes, coaches, and federations need to be part of the solution. But so does he — and he needs to do more than writing letters. Asking federations nicely to run World XC clearly isn’t working.

There needs to be consequences for skipping events like this. Germany, a nation of 83 million people, borders Denmark to the south and is sending a total of one athlete? Ridiculous. If you’re a major federation and there’s an event like this happening on your continent, the IAAF needs to make sure you are taking it seriously. Maybe that means requiring federations to send a scoring team or else it will take away Olympic/World Outdoor Championship spots. It sounds drastic, but the IAAF needs to either incentivize federations to support World XC or penalize those that don’t. There needs to be consequences for skipping this meet.

One other idea that we love came from Dutch agent Michel Boeting, who suggested that federations who would otherwise be unwilling to send athletes to World XC should ask the athletes to chip in. If, for example, the Dutch federation told its top U20 athletes “you can run at Worlds, but you have to cover 50% of the expenses,” we imagine there would be plenty of athletes jumping at the chance to represent their country in a World Championship, especially for one as close as Aarhus 2019. If they can’t afford it, perhaps their club could chip in or they could crowd-fund their way there.

It’s obviously not an ideal solution. You don’t want to be in a situation where access to a World Championship is dictated by who can and cannot afford to go. But how is it any worse than the current situation? Right now, the Netherlands is sending no one to World XC. If athletes were allowed to pay their own way, nothing would change for those that don’t want to spend their own money, while those who wouldn’t mind sharing some of the costs get to run the race. It’s an easy way to boost participation.

Jakob Larsen, Director Danish Federation, Says It’s About Designing Experiences

Jakob Larsen and his team are getting tons of praise for the course they have designed here. Larsen was asked about the key to success and he said, “The entire way in this process of creating this event, this has not been about the production of a world championships. It’s been about designing an experience, designing an experience for world-class athletes, mass participation runners, spectators and also for people watching it on television for five seconds, for half an hour, or indeed for the entire event, always making it worthwhile for [them] investing the time.”

Lynn Jennings says this is the best and toughest course she has ever seen

Lynn Jennings is the most credentialed American cross country runner ever, with world titles in 1990, 1991, and 1992. She is in Aarhus helping promote the sport of cross country and the IAAF Heritage Display here.

Jennings and five-time world cross country champion Paul Tergat were at the press conference today and both spoke highly of the magnificent Aarhus course, which has been the number one topic of discussion with everyone here.

Lynn was full of praise for the course, saying it’s “the best and the toughest cross country course I have seen.” In the video clip below, she eloquently summed up everything great about the sport of cross country in general and the Aarhus course in particular.

“Every single year for eight straight years, I would go to World XC with various levels of success, but it always served as the true foundation of the rest of my year… Cross country is not woman and man against nature but rather with it. It’s running on the grass, feeling the difficulty. To me cross country was always that mirror I would hold up to myself and find out exactly how strong my backbone was, exactly how robust my willingness was and how stout my heart was and I knew if I could place or medal or win at World Cross it gave me an indomitableness for the entire rest of the year….The natural elements of this course are as authentic as they should be, the hills and undulations. Add in the extra elements of the mud and water and it is truly the best and the toughest cross country course I have seen.”