Will cross country running return to the Olympics? Maybe not immediately but that’s okay – its international governing body is in it for (excuse the pun) the long run.
The discipline was last seen in the Olympics in 1924 and World Athletics wants it back in. But that’s only part of the story.
According to Inside the Games, the organization’s recently published 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.
Cross country is contested at the high school and college level in the U.S., potentially giving the country a deep bench of potential Olympians – and medalists. The fact that athletes can train on their own, even if colleges and high schools are not offering in-person classes, could work in the sport’s favor, as well as the country’s.
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 didn’t go in until 1928, and the women’s marathon did not appear until 1984).
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. The discipline was then dropped.
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."
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 to be included in the Paris 2024 Games, which would put it back in the summer. The following cycle of the Summer Games would be in 2028 in Los Angeles.
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. 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.”