World Cross Country: Medal mania damaging grassroots morale

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World Cross Country: Medal mania damaging grassroots morale

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For the first time in the history of the competition, there won’t be a single British senior man standing on the start line of the World Cross Country Championships tomorrow

The absence of any British senior male at the now bi-annual event has been on the cards in recent years. Representation has been in decline, with five athletes selected in 2013 and just four last time out in China. The prestige of the event still lives on for the grassroots fan and runner alike. But it’s a shame the powers that be don’t value its place on the cross country calendar or in the psyche of those that love the sport.

The zero sum of British senior men this year has a frustrating air of inevitability that does little to raise the hopes of those competing on the domestic scene. The Inter-Counties XC last month faded into near-irrelevance – save prize money and junior interest – without a senior World Cross place on the line.

And while there may be a full junior contingent and a handful of senior women benefiting from the international experience this weekend, what is the long-term rationale behind providing developmental opportunities in the junior categories if there isn’t the same commitment at senior level?

Limited ambition

This limited ambition on the senior front and short-term take doesn’t seem to correlate with British Athletics’ long-term ‘athletic nation’ ambition. If there aren’t any senior opportunities for junior athletes to aspire to, then why bother taking a full string in the first place?

But we shouldn’t be surprised by the decision – the writing was on the wall last September when the World Cross selection criteria was announced. It was potential of a top-30 individual finish, team silverware or bust for those with any aspirations to represent their country on the cross. The policy never inspired much optimism – but it still left no less tart an aftertaste when the reality of zero senior male representation in Kampala came to pass.

Today’s elite sport offering is solely about the silverware on show. And this is the same across all sports in receipt of National Lottery investment from UK Sport. This perhaps partly explains why British Athletics are only too happy to send full teams to the European XC Championships and then proudly boast of record medal-winning returns. The justification becomes more tangible.

European comfort zone

And that’s fine when the carrot of European competition brings out four Olympians for the trial event in Liverpool as it did last November. But this emphasis on medals at the expense of developing and rewarding athletes leaves the governing body hamstrung when it comes to greater competition. Hamstrung or unwilling to look beyond the pursuit of silverware in the comfort zone of European competition.

But World Cross aspirations were already doomed to the dustbin when the Inter-Counties XC was demoted from official trial status last autumn. The new selection policy hardly lent itself to Britain’s top runners coming out to play. Yet, Olympian Andy Vernon was followed home by BUCS XC champion and National XC silver medallist, Alex Teuten, Andy Maud and Sam Stabler in the top-four.

And while some of the protagonists that may have played a part in Kampala have their eyes fixed elsewhere, others built their seasons around the event and would have leapt at the chance to take part. It wasn’t the official trial race for the senior women either and yet, four runners – Claire Duck, Louise Small, Emily Hosker-Thornhill and Rebecca Murray – are donning the GB strip tomorrow.

Punishment for senior men

It’s pretty fair to say that not one of these has ‘realistic potential to achieve an individual top 30 finish in Kampala or at future World Cross Country Championships’ any more than any of the men that could have rightly been selected (though obviously, we’d love to be proven wrong). But this isn’t to say that they don’t deserve their spot on the start line. Of course they do. But so too do the senior men that are effectively being punished because they’re unlikely to pull up any trees when faced against the very best in the world.

‘We have selected a team that we feel will push and challenge the best cross country runners in the world out in Kampala,’ said British Athletics’ head of endurance, Barry Fudge. But isn’t it something of an indictment of his four-year tenure that no senior men have been deemed good enough for selection this time around?

The World Cross team announcement came just 24 hours before British Athletics proudly announced a hefty team of 25 sprinters for the IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas.

“We are taking these championships incredibly seriously,’ said Performance Director, Neil Black, and as one of the few sprint relay opportunities ahead of London 2017, that’s no bad thing. But 25 athletes? 25 sprinters and all the entourage that entails for an early-spring trip to the Bahamas? Nice work if you can get it.

The minimal return by way of medals is putting the blockers on investing in a full-strength side for the World Cross Country Championships. But the ruthlessness when it comes to cross country doesn’t stack up when compared with other disciplines.

Inspiring an athletic nation

Now the World Cross is only held every two years, isn’t there more scope for British Athletics to take it more ‘seriously’? There’s more of an imperative to uphold the distance running tradition by making sure the few opportunities that exist for senior athletes are seized with equal desire. Or perhaps those runners should just head for the mountains instead.

The decision isn’t a reflection of the state of male British distance running either. The particular disquiet around declining standards has been snuffed somewhat recently by the popular rise to the world stage of Andrew Butchart and Callum Hawkins – a very Scottish revolution. Instead of inspiring better performances, aspirational runners doing it mainly for the love of it just won’t bother any more.

For all the ambition of inspiring an ‘athletic nation’ with ‘more participants than any other individual sport’, this kick in the teeth to the grassroots of the sport will only serve to turn off the aspirational club runners.

With scant evidence that global medals inspire a generation any more than a next-door neighbour’s first sub-50 10k and question marks over the way we invest in elite sport, this ‘single minded focus on helping our athletes win more medals’ is a flimsy basis on which to justify decisions. It isn’t doing much for the morale of the sport either.

Words by Bo James
Image from Louis Jadwong