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.