The Paper Chase: An incomplete history of Olympic cross-country

Ind_cross_country_1924_Summer_OlympicsSomewhere in the past week, you may have noticed a subtle shift: the days are getting shorter, the air is getting cooler, and the leaves, in a few scattered pockets, have begun to turn. And even though the imminent pumpkin-spice-and-blanket-scarf invasion is just about upon us, I can’t help but feel — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — that it isn’t quite fall until cross-country season begins.

Cross-country was, in many ways, my first love. While track can be characterized by precision — by perfectly-level surfaces and precisely-measured distances — cross-country has always had a certain romantic haphazardness about it. Something about running over raw, unmanicured terrain speaks to a more natural, primal, childlike desire to run. Cross-country, to me, has always felt like the essential iteration of distance running. And perhaps as a result of this, the way in which administrative bodies think about cross-country has long puzzled me.

I was about twelve years old when I developed what has proved to be a particularly enduring indignation about cross-country’s exclusion from the Olympic program. Here was a classic contest of distance running in its purest, most exciting, most unpredictable form, and for some baffling reason it was absent from the most prestigious international athletics competition in the world. How on earth could this be?

As it happens, it hasn’t always been this way.

Cross-country did, in fact, enjoy inclusion on the Olympic program for three consecutive Summer Games, in 1912, 1920, and 1924 (the 1916 Games, originally planned for Berlin, were ultimately cancelled after the outbreak of the First World War). During its brief Olympic tenure, the sport was dominated by Swedish and Finnish athletes; the 1924 Paris Games saw Paavo “the Flying Finn” Nurmi capture gold in a now-infamous race that would ultimately prove to be the death knell for Olympic cross-country.

That ill-fated contest — a 10.6K course run along the ragged banks of the Seine, adjacent to the smokestacks of a nearby chemical plant and in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees celsius — ultimately wiped out more than half of its field of 38 elite distance runners. Of the mere 15 finishers, eight had to be carried away on stretchers. News reports abounded of delirious athletes, stricken with sunstroke, vomiting or falling unconscious; Edvin Wide, a Swedish Olympic medallist and fan favourite, was briefly reported to have died (he didn’t).

Officials beheld the carnage they had wrought and, so the legend goes, immediately struck the discipline from the program of future Games; Olympic cross-country was dead.

With nearly a century’s hindsight, the decision to exclude cross-country from the Olympics feels, at the very least, contestable. Parallels are often drawn between the 1924 men’s cross-country race and the famed 1928 women’s 800m, which was similarly reduced to a spectacle of exhaustion and medical distress. Yet the movement for women’s inclusion in the modern Olympic Games pressed on relatively undaunted. Conversely, whether viewed in terms of distance parity or Olympic inclusion, cross-country remains a discipline comparatively mired in the irrationality of eras long past.

If there is one compelling argument to be made for the exclusion of cross-country from the Summer Olympic program, it is this: cross-country, quite simply, is not a summer sport.

The genesis myth of cross-country’s expulsion from the Olympics leans heavily on tales from the 1924 Paris Games; it was in this dramatic yarn of athletes laid waste that my twelve-year-old self once so confidently formed her indignation at my favoured discipline’s exclusion from the Games. But the essential character of cross-country running is inextricably tied to the season in which it is contested. Cross-country is a fall sport; it is as defined by the unpredictability of autumnal weather — the mud, the rain, the sleet and snow — as it is by rolling hills or inexact distances or spikes caked in leaves and earth.

Recent years have seen a renewed push for adding the discipline to the Winter Olympic Games, with influential voices like Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Paul Tergat, and Sebastian Coe leading the charge.

It’s an idea that’s easy to like. Winter Olympic cross-country has the potential to extend interest in the Winter Games to East African nations who might previously have had little-to-no stake in them, while simultaneously expanding the opportunity for Olympic competition for distance runners worldwide; instead of competing in the prestigious championships every four years, distance runners would now have the opportunity for Olympic competition every two.

And yet even this inclusion remains problematic, requiring that the IOC rather liberally massage their existing definition of a Winter Olympic sport — that is, one requiring snow or ice — to accommodate a discipline in which such conditions, while common, are essentially incidental.

And therein lies what has (for me, at least) become the most persuasive argument both for the greatness of cross-country, and for its Olympic exclusion. Cross-country is a maverick discipline — it doesn’t lend itself with ease to categorization, to standardization, or even, it seems, to modernization. It sets itself apart from the modern athletic movement in the myriad ways by which it resists being logically ordered.

It’s a problematic anachronism of athletic endeavour. And in spite of the deeply-felt convictions of twelve-year-old me, I think I might just like it better that way.

Chase big dreams.