Monday 1 April 2024

Why I'm a little bit cross about World Cross

Aarhus, 2019. Edinburgh, 2008. Limerick, 1979.

Just three of the World Cross Country Championships I’ve heard mentioned in the last 48 hours which had a bigger crowd and better atmosphere than Belgrade this weekend.

But they are just the ones we remember. The ones we were at. The ones that are at the forefront of our Eurocentric minds.

In truth, we could probably have thrown out any one of the previous 44 editions. 

Even Amman in Jordan had a fully kitted-out, all-male, rent-a-crowd.

And Kampala (2017), the one all the cross-country geeks wish they’d been at, probably tops them all. 

Kampala is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was the Ugandan team, with their flags and enthusiasm, who were at least attempting to bring some noise to the silent fields of Belgrade on Saturday.

And secondly, the crowd in Kampala were mostly local. 

It appears that when Belgrade, admirably, sat down with World Athletics and agreed to take on this task, they obviously discussed how best to get the job done in six months. Engaging with locals or considering that there may actually be some spectators was obviously not part of the plan. 

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the phrase ‘sod spectators’ (or a more colourful version thereof) wasn’t thrown about.

Because they made absolutely no effort to get them there.

Not even the hundreds of local adults and children that passed by the course on their bikes on Saturday. 

They talk about growing the sport, throwing out all sorts of radical ideas that take something away from the sport as we know and love it. Yet we are not doing the very, very basics.

The spectators were treated to a portaloo in 2009

There was nothing on the event website aimed at spectators; not even a mention that the event was free to attend.

There were no spectator toilets, no refreshments, no merchandise. No spectator experience.

We couldn’t hear any of the commentary or announcements. Not the starting gun. Not the national anthems.

We couldn’t get to half the course, and there were large parts that couldn’t be seen at all, including the start and finish.

The big screen (yes, there was one), could only be seen by those special enough to have accreditation. 

Strings had to be pulled so that parents and coaches of medal-winning athletes could make it to their medal ceremony.

Any of those parents and children on their bikes curious enough to stop would have had no idea that they were at the greatest footrace on earth.

Why do we waste precious energy trying to ‘grow the sport’ when we disregard both the serious fan who has parted with their hard-earned cash to be there, or those who are at the venue anyway and might just be inspired if they had any idea what was going on?

Saturday was my level of niche athletics events. I had a great time. 

But this is the greatest event on earth.

And it’s not just about me. 

After so much effort in recent years, and at least three consecutive editions which were in danger of being called spectacles, this is a disappointment. A step backwards. A nail.

Please don’t let it be so.

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