Could cross country running be returning to the Olympics? It was all the way back in summer of 2020 that we first heard the rumblings. Then, there was silence. But a lot can happen when nobody is looking, and World Athletics (the international governing body of track & field) has been hard at work on the lobby in the intervening time. Now, as eyes turn toward LA 2028, it appears the discipline may be in the running again.
According to Inside The Games, World Athletics exec Sebastian Coe is optimistic that cross country, last showcased in the Olympics in 1924, is on the comeback trail.
"We got quite close for Paris 2024,” he told reporters. “We had good conversations at the time in the lead-up a few years ago with the Paris Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee.”
The centennial of the sport's last appearance at the Games would have made it a sentimental choice; however, in 2020, when the announcement was last made, there was so much uncertainty regarding organized sports that World Athletics decided to table the issue for the time being.
"I sort of accepted the rationale that this probably wasn’t the time to add new disciplines into the Olympic world at that point, particularly with COVID, with the extra costs and resource implications.”
However, with the scientific advances since that time, says Coe, “the door is open” again, and discussions are taking place. And, he notes, "it does look highly likely that if the door remains open and we do land this, that it would be 2028 Summer Games that will be our first opportunity."
According to Inside the Games, World Athletics’ Strategic Plan includes a robust series of goals, including biennial World Athletics Road Championships combining the World Half Marathon, a mass participation race and other elements such as the World Race Walking Team Championships.
The organization says its plan, available here, is already underway. The Strategic Plan notes that World Athletics will seek to "extend the reach of the Olympic Games by working with IOC and other stakeholders to include cross country within the athletics program."
Cross country was hosted at the Summer Olympics between 1912 and 1924. (At the time, it was a men’s-only sport; women’s running events weren't included until 1928, and the women’s marathon did not appear until 1984; for a great history of women’s hard-fought entry into Olympic running events, click here).
According to World Athletics' timeline, the goal of cross country inclusion would be in the “development phase” until at least 2023, with the “delivery phrase” following. World Athletics has stated they will push for a mixed cross country relay; the IOC looks favorably on mixed-gender events. And Los Angeles might well be the place for cross country's return; being outside the Rings since 1924 certainly hasn’t hurt the sport's appeal here. At the high school level, it has consistently ranked in the top 10 most popular boys’ and girls’ sports, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. At the college level, cross country is second only to basketball in number of school teams nationwide.
The popularity of the sport could give this country a deep bench of potential Olympians – and medalists. Having cross country as an Olympic sport could draw more students to participate in it; it would also place far more importance on championship events and on up-and-coming athletes. It could also serve to encourage more schools to develop programs; because the sport uses existing venues (generally natural features like parks and trails that can be found easily and used free of charge) and no special equipment, it would be easy for schools to implement.Cross country is an easy sport for schools to implement, as well. In 2017, Business Insider noted, “Cross country, thanks to being a sport that doesn't require a stadium or arena, has small teams, uses minimal equipment, and can be played by both men and women, is a close second with 2,065 NCAA teams.”
While cross country is traditionally a cold-weather sport, it was contested during the Summer Games, along with track & field and road racing events; unfortunately, during the 1924 Olympics in Paris, most of the men running dropped out because of extreme heat and the effects of pollution from a power plant adjacent to the venue. The discipline was then dropped from the Games.
World Athletics officials originally said they would like to bring back cross country but would like to see it held during the Winter Olympics. However, that is not likely to happen because according to clause six of the Olympic Charter, "Only those sports held on snow and ice may be included in the Winter Games."
Coe, however, would still like the IOC to consider it for inclusion as a winter sport – and while he’s aware of the charter language, he has several valid points for the IOC to consider an exception.
"I’ve not been that aware of recent Olympic Games where there has been an abundance of snow and ice anyway [Editor's note: Beijing is struggling to manufacture snow for the 2022 Games]. I’m slightly tongue-in-cheek here, but I also think it would add to the diversity of the Winter Games, that does tend not to have representation from a large part of the world, for obvious reasons. I think cross country would help with that. I am nothing if not relentless and I am not coming off this agenda."