XC - the future?

Posted in The Sweat by Matt Ward on Fri 17 Dec '10

© basegreen / flickr

After reading this animated piece by AW editor Jason Henderson I answered his tweet about suggestions and thoughts. I actually answered it with 5 suggestions. The general XC racing scene seems to be in trouble, on the face of it…

This is something that I have wanted to air for a while, but never really had the time or strong inclination, and although my feelings have a different lilt to Jason’s, his article has spurred my on to write this.

Of course Jason’s article looks at the top level domestic and international scene, and there are big issues there, especially around championship races and the media / TV coverage. Then there is the utter dominance on the international scene by African athletes, whether at the World Cross, Lotto Cup or the Great Edinbugh XC. There has to be a correlation between that and general drop in standards from non-African nations.

© www.iaaf.org / Marcelino Almeida

Gebremariam at Oeiras

Cross country has to battle it out with team sports, as it always has, but it also now comes up against the X Box, Wii or PS3 generation, and that means it has to be exciting and appeal to a very different mindset to those of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

This piece is by no means exhaustive and I am sure that there are many other issues out there, however these are some of the most relevant that I have observed. These are (entirely personal) thoughts on how cross country could make itself more appealing to the 21st C runner and media for that matter (I also understand that not all of these comments will go down well with some of the administrators!):

1. Courses. I realise that they generally have to be near towns and cities, bit why is there still a penchant for having featureless courses, generally flat and often on playing fields? Because they have always done that? Because its municipal land?

2. Open races. Very few around the country. Which gives leaning towards closed league races. I know many runners who aren’t even members of clubs. I know transient people who live in one place and travel at weekends, so come Saturday when they arrive in said home town or place of vacation / business they are unable to run the local XC as they aren’t a first claim member.

Leagues are needed, don’t get me wrong, but we also need inlets for first-timers and races for people who want to get a race in as they happen to be in said town or city.

3. The highly competitive nature of XC leagues means that it could intimidate newcomers. The atmosphere is generally tense, I certainly wouldn’t say that there is a very big sense of fun or festival at the races. Trail, off road, fell running encourages a far more ‘have a go attitude’ and you can generally turn up on the day to race. Also the parochial nature of the leagues often makes outsiders feel very unwelcome.

4. Though I don’t have the hard facts, my observations is that the average age of competitors (in the senior races) is getting older. This tells us that there are either less younger people coming into the sport, or less graduating from the younger age groups. Why?

5. Brand / sponsor involvement, attractions. The UKA are, in my opinion, doing a good job in raising the bar for XC with the McCain Cross Challenge series. But we need more, at second tier level. I am fully aware of the purist nature of the sport, and wouldn’t want to see XC leagues taken over by the big brands, however as with the trail scene, announcers, attractions for supporters and families, good food availability will all add to the festival atmosphere. Have you ever been to a cycle cross race in Belgium? Cow bells, big climbs, thousands of spectators and a festival atmosphere – and generally well backed by a big brand.


Perhaps we are idealists thinking that a sport so traditional as cross country deserves to survive, come what may. I used to time trial on a bike, its decline over the last 10 years has been dramatic, partly down to dangerous and no-longer-accessible roads, unsympathetic authorities and that lingering old boys club mentality.

There are many, many good people, doing a great job at club level, throughout the country. Unpaid, unheralded people putting in countless unpaid hours trying to keep their leagues and sport alive. But alone they will not succeed. There need to be fresh ideas, fresh minds and bodies and probably a fresh approach to how the sport is run and marketed. I, for one, don’t want to see the sport die, so let’s SAVE XC!

Reactions so far
  1. John Mason Jan 8, 01:51 AM

    I fully agree with the above comments. Unfortunately the cross country officialdom seem bent on squeezing every ounce of fun, out of XC racing, as anyone who has competed in one of the more ‘serious’ races would know. In contrast, the fell races are a pleasure. My daughter found that she had forgotten to pin her number to her shirt at the English Junior Uphill Championship race in Cumbria. Rather than exclude her from the race, she was told, “Don’t worry. Just tell us your number when you get back in”. A far more appealing response than I’m sure she would have been given at a XC race.

  2. Mark Smith Jan 17, 07:27 AM

    In response to point number 2 above: I know of at least one X-C league which accepts entries on the day (for a small charge) from guest runners. Surely this can’t be the only example of this kind of arrangement

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