Olympic Torch: Cross-country running needs a comeback

Graphic by Camilla Samuel

Every two years, the Olympics provide an international stage for athletes to display their incredible abilities and for sports that are otherwise not closely followed to be put in the limelight.

This is especially true for the sport of running. Watching athletes compete for national glory and medals while running on a track is exciting for many, and it’s one of the only times a large audience takes notice of the sport. For instance, Usain Bolt captured the public’s attention while setting world records in the 100 meter and 200 meter races at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — Bolt would again break both records at the 2009 World Championships. Even if these athletes compete in year-round events, success at the Olympics can make an athlete a national hero and amplify the popularity of the sport for years to come. 

This is the type of exposure that cross-country running needs, which is why it is imperative that it make a return to the Olympic games. Cross-country running is a form of running that includes distances of 5,000 meters and above and is run on all terrains, from grass and gravel to snow and mud. It is a sport that is grueling, competitive and cerebral. These qualities make it perfect for a fun and interesting broadcast to an international audience. In addition, cross country is one of the few types of running that has a close-knit team aspect to it, since all members of the team are running the same race and competing for team points.

In spite of the fact that the sport is seemingly tailor-made for the Olympics, the history of cross-country running at the Olympics is relatively short. As a summer Olympic event for only 12 years from 1912 to 1924, cross-country was dominated by Finland and Sweden, with few other countries even receiving medals. Eventually, the event was disbanded when most runners in the 1924 Olympics’ cross-country race dropped out due to extreme heat. For more than 75 years, reinstating cross-country as an Olympic sport was not considered.

Finally, in 2008, the movement for the reinstatement of cross-country running at the Olympics gained steam again. A group of some of the greatest distance runners of all time — Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Paul Tergat — wrote a letter to the International Olympic Committee and International Association of Athletics Federations, urging them to consider reinstating cross-country running either in the Winter or Summer Olympics.

“Cross-country running is of course the most natural, indeed elemental of all sports,” they wrote. “It is a fascinating discipline whose roots are lost in the earliest history of mankind.”

Cross-country running is a truly fascinating sport, and it is only right that the International Olympic Committee gives cross-country-focused distance runners what they deserve by allowing them to shine on the Olympic stage, whether that is during the summer or the winter. The greatest 100 meter and 200 meter sprinter of all time is widely regarded to be Bolt, whose net worth is around $90 million. On the other hand, Gebrselassie, one of the greatest cross-country runners of all time, has a net worth of only $1 million. If nothing else, the reinstatement of cross-country running in the Olympics has the power to increase awareness of the sport and heighten the profiles of some of the best athletes in the world.