3 Apr

World Cross Needs Lift

World Cross action

Chelsea knocked Man Utd out of the FA Cup, Wales triumphed in the Six Nations Rugby, Sebastien Vettel controversially won the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix and England's cricketers drew their Test Series in New Zealand.

These are just some of the sporting headlines from recent weeks. The chances are that you had heard at least some of the above, if not all. But how many know that Kenyans Japhet Korir and Emily Chebet were the big winners at an event sometimes billed 'the greatest footrace in the world' in March?

I doubt many outside of athletics' hard core supporters even knew that the World Cross Country Championships had even taken place. The elite races took place in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz - a place not easy to find on Google, never mind on a map. It is sad to say, but you may well have been forced to turn to Google again to find news about the seemingly prestigious event on Sunday 24 March. BBC2 apart, broadcasters and national newspapers had little interest and ultimately, so now have the general public. Which is a real pity. It is only seven months since one of the most thrilling athletics championships in history unfolded within the Olympic Games. Yet, the latest global event was struggling to muster even the faintest blip on the sporting radar.

The World Cross Country Championships has a rich history with Paula Radcliffe, Paul Tergat and Ingrid Kristiansen all amongst the list of previous winners. There had been a two year gap since the 2011 event in Punta Umbria, Spain marking a shift from being a yearly championship to a bi-annual event. It should have been an opportunity to re-launch and re-invigorate the ailing event, yet instead the event was returned to the same Polish city which hosted the event just three years prior and another low-key championships ensued.

The thing is, I don't believe that cross country running has simply had its day and lost relevance. If anything, the opposite is true. There has been an explosion of extreme off-road running events in recent years with events like the Tough Mudder and the Spartan races mushrooming in Europe and USA with huge numbers signing up.

Even prime time television programmes like 'Total Wipeout' share an ancestry with cross country running back to off-road obstacle races. Perhaps the world's premier off-road championship could even take a leaf out of Tough Mudder and Total Wipeout's books?

Rather than the usual manicured parklands, why not use courses that include wading through a river or even running through a firewall? What a spectacle it would be to see the world's great athletes battling with extreme hazards like that!

Even on that point, despite being a world championship, the event has struggled to attract box office names in recent years. The World Cross does not have the same gravitas as track championships, but it is still a unique opportunity for the world's distance specialists to compete in a kind of 'catchweight' contest over 12k of the cross country.

Who wouldn't be interested in seeing Mo Farah up against the world's premier marathon runners, steeplechase runners and even middle distance specialists? Unfortunately, such a match up rarely occurs.

Due to the event timing in mid-March, many of the leading track runners simply avoid the country to focus on training for the outdoor track season and for marathon runners, the date is too close to a spring race like the Virgin London Marathon to consider seriously.

Finally, the locations chosen are uninspiring with the IAAF reliant upon cities bidding for the event to host it. Consequently, it is cities like Bydgoszcz with limited budgets yet determined to put themselves on the map who end up hosting the event.

But shouldn't the IAAF dip into its own coffers and really showcase the event to bring it back to life? Why not take it to New York's Central Park or even the Pyramids in Cairo or even more daringly, Uluru (Ayr's Rock) in Australia or an Antarctic Island. Give the world's media and the public something interesting to see. Make it a spectacle.

Why also stick rigidly to 12k for the men's race and 8k for the senior women? Why not vary it year on year to tempt in some middle distance runners some years and ultra-runners in others? Off road running is more relevant than ever before to the sporting public, yet paradoxically the World Cross County Championships has never been less relevant.