Is there anything left of the World Cross Country Championships? What a wonderful sport, a tough competition just going under as we watch.

I had personally wished that it would make the Olympic Games some time in future, as it used to be in the early 20th century. How wrong I was! Instead of being elevated to compete for inclusion in the Olympics, where golf and rugby sevens managed, the pounding of the feet over the terrain, jumping over huge logs, the mud bath, the run on the snow is surely dying a natural death.

Without besmirching track events, which are equally exciting, especially, the shorter races and a few middle distance like the metric mile, others become boring to observers. Running around a track for 25 laps, for 27-30 minutes makes it tiresome to the observers.

But around the terrain, sometimes away from the fans, who only resort to watching from the big screens, makes cross-country a real entertaining athletics event.

Biennial event

Athletics chiefs, in their wisdom, decided to make it a biennial event. For the first time in all my years as an adult, there will be no World Cross Country Championships. After last year in Punta Umbria, it we shall wait until next year. Thereby making this year’s Kenya National Cross Country Championships, coming in two weeks, not worth watching. What a big loss! A catastrophe.

The Championships will only be used to pick a team for an African Cross Country Championships in Cape Town on March 18.

What went wrong? In 1997, a committee within IAAF that runs road running and cross country, then under German Otto Klappert, introduced the shorter races, the 4km for men and women. This added the programme to six races of cross country running on top of the junior men and women and senior men and women.

Bleak future

The reason given then was to expand cross-country running. Insiders, however, knew this was an idea promoted by European federations to try and balance cross country to give their athletes a chance to finish in respectable positions.

This was because cross-country had become very much a competition among Kenyan, Ethiopian and Moroccan athletes.

But as it turned, Kenya dominated the inaugural 4km races in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1998 when John Kibowen and Daniel Komen leading a Kenyan brigade that swept all the medals on offer.

Kenyan continued dominating the 4km races in all subsequent years, with Jackline Maranga leading the women from Dublin in 2001 before Edith Masai went for a hat-trick. It also became a Kenyan affair.

Athletics chiefs, again in their wisdom, now chose to make World Cross Country Championships a biennial event, claiming the global economic situation could not make sustain some of their events. Even the Continental Championships, what used to be known as the World Cup, is facing a very bleak future.

However, my heart is with the Kenyan and Ethiopian fans, who so much loved the cross-country that their track athletes adopted it as a launching pad for their careers. Every Kenyan and Ethiopian track athletes of substance virtually started from the cross-country.

With a Kenyan David Okeyo, the indefatigable Secretary general of Athletics Kenya, as the supreme head of the cross country and road running committee, I hope he will not be a figure head, but we expect a strong voice from Africa challenging the European, Asian and American power barons that they must not judge what is good for global athletics by what favours their athletes.

Competition is competition regardless of who wins. Germany used to dominate tennis and football. But some former Eastern European nations have emerged and completely tilted the balance. America used to dominate sprints. Jamaicans are now the people to beat. Englishmen and Australians used to reign in the mile during the era of Roger Bannister, Seb Coe, Steve Scott, Steve Ovett and Peter Snell. That changed too. Howabout the great Finnish distance runners?

Will the marathon be the next victim? It has also become very much a Kenyan and Ethiopian affair. Let us keep praying for this race too.

By OMULO OKOTH, The Standard

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