Should Cross Country Running Be Added to the Winter Olympics?

We think that cross country running should be added to the Olympic and the winter games, in particular. What do you think?

By on February 19, 2010 | Comments

It’s time for cross country running to be added to the Winter Olympics. At least that’s what the Winter Olympics, the recent US cross country national championships, and a simple question from “The Proton” on Salomon’s Facebook page has us thinking. What do you think? Should cross country running be added to the Olympics? Are the winter games the right venue? Below we’ll share a few thoughts that we think are worth your consideration.

Cross Country is International
The cross country running is an established international sport. When Bydgoszcz, Poland hosts the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at the end of March, it will mark the 38th IAAF World Championships. The first 36 XC World Championships included 10,026 athletes from a staggering 164 different countries.

Cross Country Was an Olympic Sport

You might not know it, but cross country running was included in four early Summer Olympics! Cross country was a team only event in 1904, while both individual and team medals were award in 1912, 1920, and 1924. The gold went to a US team in cross country’s Olympic debut… as did the silver. The New York AC and Chicago AA teams were the only two teams to compete! Just think, any other recognized nation could have brought home an Olympic medal simply by sending a team!

This less than flourishing start did not dissuade organizers from once again including again cross country running in the 1912 summer games. In fact, as noted above, individual medals were awarded in addition to the team honors. Fortunately, a much stronger field assembled for XC’s three subsequent Olympic appearances. Led by Paavo Nurmi, Finland dominated in taking 5 of the 6 golds and 8 of the 18 total medals available from 1912-1924. The Finns’ Nordic neighbor Sweden took another 5 of the 18 medals. The only other countries to ever bring home Olympic cross country medals: US, Great Britain and France.

Cross Country Is an Inclusive Sport
Try to find another sport that is more accessible than cross country. Good luck. It’s the only sport for which one can train with zero equipment and nothing more than the freedom to safely move about land. (Yes, one also needs adequate food, shelter, and time to train, but that goes for any other sport, as well.)

Sure, there are other highly accessible sports such as soccer (one merely needs a ball in the community), but cross country is up there. As evidence, we offer the results of the 2009 men’s senior (read as “open”) team world championship. While unsurprising from the perspective of sports history, Kenya’s win and Ethiopia’s runner-up status show how one need not live in an economic powerhouse to be competitive. However, it’s not Kenya and Ethiopia that we mean to highlight. Instead, consider Eritrea placing third and Uganda fourth. The cross country harriers from these least developed nations humbled the men from Spain (7th) and the US (8th) by placing all four their scoring team members ahead of the Western countries’ top men. All of the technology available in Japan (11th), Portugal (12th), France (13th), the UK (14th), and Canada (17th out of 19), couldn’t stop their countrymen from being schooled by Eritreans and Ugandans.

If you look at the brotherhood of runners rather than the brotherhood nations, you’ll see that it brings all sort of runners together. Many top track  AND road AND trail athletes compete in cross country at the national and international level.

Cross Country Running Is a Winter Sport
Internationally, cross country running is a winter sport and its has a rightful place in the Winter Olympics. Adding XC to the winter games would not simply be a matter of spreading the sport thinner as it would be if the races were added to the summer games. In winter, marathoners, mountain runners, and steeple chasers alike could compete for their countries and for glory without sacrificing their other pursuits.

On the flip side, cross country is NOT a summer sport. At least that’s the reason given for cutting it from the Olympics after the 1924 games.

There is the issue of venue and climate that would need to be addressed if cross country were added to the Olympics. As far as venues go, most Winter Olympic venues now cover large areas and often enough the cross country runs could be held in nearby, lower elevation setting. Finding a cross country course near Vancouver would not have been a problem and we sure as heck would have loved a slickrock showdown in the Salt Lake City winter games.

What if no venue that will likely be snow-free can be found or if snow covers the course? Groom the course, if need be, or, if it would be reasonable, run through it. We’d love to see Bekele float over 6 inches of fresh powder!

Yes, it might very well be cold with or without snow on the course. That’s just win. It’s not like endurance athletes saw ideal competitive conditions at the Athens or Beijing summer games!

As we said earlier, we think cross country running should be added to the Winter Olympics. Heck, we’ve even created a Facebook page calling for cross country to become an Olympic sport! What do you think?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.