Posted on Tuesday, August 4th, 2020 at 2:49 pm and is filed under Archive, Debate | 5


Two years after Paavo Nurmi won what would turn out to be the last cross country race (so far) at the Olympic Games, in Paris 1924, the Inter-Counties cross country championship was born, in Beaconsfield, west of London. During close to a century, the ‘inter-counties’ graduated to being second only to the English ‘national’ on the winter calendar, and the winners of the former have been equally illustrious, with a roll-call of distance running greats, including Jack Holden, Gordon Pirie, Basil Heatley, Gerry North, Roy Fowler, Dick Taylor, Ron Hill, Tony Simmons, Steve Ovett, Mike McLeod, Steve Jones, and Mo Farah.

So, with what sense of irony do we greet a potential return of cross country to the Olympic Games alongside news that the future of the Inter-Counties might be in jeopardy? Last Thursday, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe (who occasionally got his legs muddy himself) announced a move to reintroduce cross country running to the Olympics for Paris 2024, exactly one hundred years after its demise. Yet, only a few days earlier, a crowd-funding initiative * was launched to try to raise £10,000 to ensure that the next inter-counties can take place properly at Loughborough in February 2021.

The Inter-Counties events, which include annual championships in track and field, race walking and fell running as well as cross country, are administered by the UK Counties Athletics Union which is, in turn affiliated to UK Athletics, the umbrella organisation for the sport in Britain.

Cliff Robinson, the coordinator of the successful Cross Challenge series of events each winter which culminates in the Inter-Counties (from which the teams for the World Cross are selected), admits that the coffers are low but not yet empty. But it is rumours of imminent collapse of the UKCAU itself which has prompted the crowd-funding initiative, welcomed by Robinson, who said yesterday, ‘We’re assured of an inter-counties cross country for the next two years at Loughborough, but every bit of funding helps. But COVID hasn’t helped matters. We’re waiting to hear if the London Marathon is going ahead, because that decision could affect whether the Cross-Challenge events can be run this winter. And there’s also the possibility that the World Cross in Australia next March might be in jeopardy’.

For much of its recent history, the Cross-Challenge and Inter-Counties have been funded by local authorities, who have also provided the venues, but any additional commercial sponsorship, ie shoe/clothing companies has been hamstrung by conflicts with UKA sponsors.

The crowd-funding scheme is an initiative of another former winner of the inter-counties (in 1996), John Downes, and coach Simon Prior. Downes, also an Irish national cross country champion was a member of London-Irish AC for the 20+ years that he lived in London. Even though he has returned to Ireland, he has kept in close touch with English/British athletics, and has long been a vocal critic of the administration.

Speaking by phone yesterday from his home in south-west Ireland, Downes said, ‘If you believe in something and you want to save it then actions are required. Without competitions like the Inter-Counties and the opportunity it offers, then history and future are lost at the same time. I’m not just an ex-winner, I’m a athletics fan as well. Without the likes of athletes of my calibre there is no Steve Ovett or Tim Hutchings, and if not for them we don’t have a Carlos Lopes or Dave Moorcroft. It was those people and that history that was pushing me. That’s why we got men like Steve Jones, or women like Jill Hunter or Kirsty Wade or Laura Muir. I’m interested in the next generation of young athletes who take pride in getting a county vest and represent their counties from all over the UK. Simon Prior feels the same. We can say we tried. We are here because of the mess that UK Athletics has got itself in. Let’s at least try and fix something of this’.

Downes’ and Prior’s initiative has already raised 35% of the £10,000 target, including a £1000 donation from an expat who recalls his involvement in county athletics with fondness.


5 responses to “CROSS PURPOSES”

  1. Richard Tuson says:

    Fantastic that they are raising money to save this iconic race. However, with England Athletics receiving an annual subscription from every club runner in the country surely EA should step in and save this event.

    Great article Pat.

  2. john Bicourt says:

    Good to see what John is doing and all credit to his initiative. But isn’t it incredible that England Athletics with Chris Jones their useless CEO being paid over £150,000 a year and his so called organisation awash with money meant to develop the grass roots, sits back and does sweet FA!

  3. Tim Hutchings says:

    It’s a sad indictment of the state of our sport that it’s come to this for Cross Country in the UK. When I worked for Reebok in the 90s and the company sponsored the UK Federation, I was heavily involved, and happy to be so, in the establishing of what was then The Reebok Cross Challenge, along with Cliff Robinson and many other wondefrul then voluntary hard workers like him; so many of them gave hundreds of hours to the sport unthanked and many still do. Under our guidance, the series straddled much of the country, paid good prize money to the top finishers (enabling several athletes to push on to great things internationally, e.g. Helen Clitheroe) and gave the sport some substantial profile, attracting athletes from all age groups to the discipline. We even had events televised; can you imagine that?

    That said, I support what John is trying to do – essentially, save the Inter-County Champs! – but had not heard about this crowd-funding campaign till I got an email from Pat Butcher this afternoon (Tue 4/8). It needs more exposure, that’s for sure!

    Reebok realised the significance of Cross Country to the structure of the sport and the heritage of it within British distance running, and a portion of their sponsorship money was allocated specifically to Cross Country. I”m not sure this is the case any more and the money that has been spent on Relay squad training over the last 20+ years, is just staggering – but they’re relatively easy championship medals. And that is where the issue is; while funding is connected to medal-winning performances, there will always be this disproportionate use of funds to support a few dozen elite, who one could argue, have already made it – and it’s the layer of athletes below them, who need the help.

    What it’s important to acknowledge, is that for distance runners, the world has changed dramatically since the 1990s. I was able to earn a good living on the international CC circuit – a caucasian Brit, brought up in the home counties, who just happened to be a strong distance runner. The current generation however, including any budding “Tim Hutchings” out there, haver to battle through a mass of African talent just to make the top 50 at the World CC – and good luck with making the top ten in any of the remaining commercial CC races dotted around Europe, because it’s almost impossible. I was lucky. I was able to travel over to France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and so on, and earn good money of a winter weekend, but that is nearly impossible now, partly because the circuit is saturated with African talent that is desperate to earn $100, never mind about a few thousand. They train hard back in Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Eritrea, Rwanda, etc, etc…..and are desperate to get on to the European circuit of CC and Road Racing. It’s not a level playing field, in my humble opinion either, as I have no doubt at all, that there are genetic advantages at play.

    If I ran the World CC now, in the form of my silver medal placings, I think I’d be doing well to make the top 15 or so. This is a huge can of worms I’m opening, and some people won’t like my views on why the World CC is no longer interesting to international TV audiences, no longe of interest to entire federations (at last year’s World CC in Aarhus, Denmark, neither Finland nor Holland for example, sent a single athlete – both countries with rich CC traditions). The lack of success of European athletes – yes, because of the glut of fast Africans – has virtually killed off the sport in Europe, as a commerical enterprise anyway; TV audiences and spectators on the ground, just don’t want to see their local guys finishing minutes behing some anonymous fellas from Africa, most of whom can’t work with the local media. I’ve ranted on this before; if athletes just turn up, run around fast, take the money and leave, guess what the local paper is going to write about on monday – yup, Football. Agents have been guilty for decades now, of not encouraging or training their African charges to work with the media. It’s a distasteful fact, which many agents get angry about. But I’m sorry, while some are good and have tried to encourage their athletes to work with race organisers, too many don’t give a damn. I’m going to slam the lid back on the can of worms now.

  4. Conrad Truedson says:

    “Agents have been guilty for decades now, of not encouraging or training their African charges to work with the media. ”

    I remember talking about that same point in Boulder back in the 80s….a time when there were lots of road races and you could make a decent living.

  5. john Bicourt says:

    What Tim has said is all too true and I’ve been saying the same for some time as well.

    Ironically, I was the first agent (and was Tim’s as well) to bring Kenyan’s into Europe for commercial races. Back then in the late 80’s it was a welcome sight to have 1 or 2 Kenyans in a race and the media, organisers. public and even most other athletes liked to see them but as Tim, myself and no doubt many others now agree, it’s reached saturation point and is clearly killing interest in all but the very carefully managed top televised events between the most elite and best known names: e.g., Bekele vs Farah, Great North Run; Tergat vs. Gebrselassie , London marathon (which neither won!) Yet despite those great athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia having won numerous global medals and set world records, few outside of athletics fans would have a clue who they are?

    The World Cross, once the greatest running race on the planet, is now a biannual event and poorly supported by the non African nations; for the simple reason it has become, in effect, an African Championship. The same also for all distance races (men and women) at the Olympic Games and World Championships. Even the European Cross Country Championships has been dominated by Kenyans who’ve managed to become national of and represent Turkey and even changed their names to Turkish!

    There is virtually no race in the world, with prize money (and often appearance money, as well) that is not dominated by athletes from Africa, whether or not they have changed nationality. I do not in any sense blame any African for dominating the distance running but I do despair at what it causes to the sport in terms of lost interest and the failure of so many aspiring non African runners (including from north Africa) to try and compete.

    It’s not about colour it’s about money. An opportunity to escape from relative poverty and of course the fact there is to a degree a genetic and environmental advantage, especially living at above 5000ft and having run everyday since they could walk. Africans from the rural areas think nothing of running 10 miles or more a day to and from school. Their diets are simple and many of those living in areas close to where their fellow countrymen and women train in large groups are naturally inspired to try and join their heroes and know that if they can succeed in getting to Europe or anywhere outside of their own country and race, then they have the possibility to earn more money in a year than they could possibly earn in a lifetime at home. Many Africans athletes are literally $millionaires. But if races never gave money in prizes and/or appearance, or some kind of financial benefit, then you would never see an African runner again,except in the two major global events the Olympic Games and World Championships.

    What then are the possible solutions to help re-create the interest and inspire MORE of the rest of the world’s, and specifically the UK’s, potential elite runners to do the necessary training to at least try to compete with the Africans? (I purposely exclude Farah who, although a British citizen and the most successful global gold medallist, is still of African origin) : Some of this will no doubt be controversial?

    1. Do as many races do in the US. Prize money for US citizens only.
    2. Restrict the number of Africans in races, not by necessarily excluding them completely but by limiting the invites to 1 or 2 rather than the detrimental effect of having as many as 6-12+ to overwhelm a race.
    3. Do as Foster does for the Great Races including the GNR. Only bring in 1 top African (as he did when Farah raced Bekeli)
    4. Bring 2-3 lower level Africans to provide more equal competition for our best.
    5. Cut out the ridiculous scene of a phalanx of African pacemakers in the race organiser’s attempt to set a fast time for whichever top African marathoner or half marathoner they have invited.
    6. If pace-making can be accepted then so can controlling the early stages of a road or cross country races. What good British runner wants to turn up to face 1 or more Africans who will almost certainly “leg it” from the start and leave the rest behind. People and the media want to see a race not a strung out procession.

    (When I was in charge of the fields for the Belfast XC for 10 years, I stipulated with the invited athletes (all nations) and the British best on appearance monies, that for the first 3 laps of the 5 lap race, no one was to break away. All could run hard but the best had to keep their foot off the accelerator until after 3 laps. I stipulated that even with Paul Tergat when I invited him and he won (just!) and every other time it made for an exciting race with the lead changing frequently, even over the last two laps for the best. I did the same for the Belfast 10 mile point to point road race. The first year I brought my athletes over, including Ismael Kirui, double world 5000mts champion, and William Mutwol, 3rd world cross and 3rd Olympic steeplechase, I told them to stick with and mix with the pack until the last 2 miles. Unfortunately, I was not at that time in charge of the elite field and one African athlete not in my group, took off from the gun. He opened up a considerable lead and of course the lead TV bike just went with him. So rubbish TV coverage because the local athletes and other invited athletes never got seen. The following year I was in charge and the race went as planned with 4 athletes within 4 secs at the finish; won by a Dutch athlete with I think Hendrick Ramaala, SA 2nd.? All times were faster than the previous year’s winner and many set pb’s) It was also far, far better TV and more exciting for the spectators who, lined the route, especially seeing some of the best Irish and Northern Irish runners up there.

    My criticisms and concerns regarding support for athletes by UKA and EA are well documented so I will not go chapter and verse here other than to say that there has been a huge lost opportunity over the last 20 years since funding began, for athletics to thrive, due to the incompetence of the NGBs and the sport quangos that fund them. Not least for their massive waste of money spent mainly on themselves. Had even 50% of the monies wasted been put into a year round prize funded competion programme for U20’s and seniors, men and women plus financial rewards for coaches on their athlete achievements plus payments to clubs holding the events as described in my Super-1 Athletics proposal (see link below) then I believe the sport would be thriving and standards across the board far higher. (You can also see my other articles on the sport and its governance and funding)

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