Cross Country in the Olympics? Yes, please.

By Jesse Squire

February 1, 2018

Jesse Squire’s Thursday Morning College Trackstravaganza and Field Frenzy runs every Thursday morning at Citius Mag. You can follow him on Twitter at @tracksuperfan.

I swear this column is supposed to be about college track, but for the second week in a row I lead with an observation about the pro end of the sport.

This Saturday is the USA Cross Country Championships. Galen Rupp has thrown his hat into the ring, but Leonard Korir is a formidable opponent who is quite capable of winning. The women’s side also has a clash of great runners with Emily Infeld and Jordan Hasay. Two of the world’s best steeplechasers, Evan Jager and Courtney Frerichs, add another layer of complexity. These should be some great races.

You may have seen the latest from the IAAF regarding cross country and attempts to address its reduced place in the sport. The words used include such passé terms as “extreme”, showing that it’s not just in Portland that the dream of the 90s is still alive.

You may also have seen Martin Fritz Huber’s response in Outside Online. He has many suggestions about how to increase the popularity of cross country, some serious and some silly. This is looking at the situation from a commercial aspect, but the truth is that commercial appeal is not a big driver of what happens in international track and field. (Road racing is a notable exception due to its massive participation numbers among people old enough to have disposable income.)

Rather, most of what happens at the international level is political. Most national governing bodies around the world are federal government agencies through a Ministry of Sport or some similar thing (the USA is a rare exception). The policies of those NGBs generally reflect an attitude that the Olympics are important and all other athletics competitions are far less important, and they use resources accordingly. This is why IAAF president Seb Coe’s statement about adding cross country to the 2024 Olympic program is the important takeaway from that press release. If cross country is an Olympic event then it changes everything.

You need look no further than the history of college track and field to see this in action. Cross country is the second most-sponsored sport in Division I (just barely behind basketball) – but this is actually a recent development. For the first half of the 20th century, cross country was a regional peculiarity confined to the Northeast and Midwest. West coast teams never competed in the NCAAs until 1961, and the Pac-8 (now Pac-12) never held a cross country championship until 1969. What changed is that whereas we once thought of outdoor track as “real track” and indoor and cross as mere preparation for that, the attitude now is that winning conference titles and qualifying to nationals in all three sports are given equal weight because it’s all part of a campus athletics PR machine.

One big benefit for adding cross country to the Olympics is expanding the athletics (track and field) program. That’s been a problem for athletics since not expanding at the Olympics equals contracting. It’s why other sports are always trying to add on new events that seem like gimmick versions of existing events: beach volleyball, three-on-three basketball, synchronized diving. The slate of track and field events has been basically set since before World War II and has only expanded through adding women’s events. But unlike those other sports’ add-on events, cross country is not a gimmick.

For all the talk about “edgy” and “extreme”, the kind of Olympic cross country that would benefit our sport is as old-school as it gets: hills, mud, long grass, maybe a ditch and/or fence to traverse. These serve to make races a spectacle, but another benefit is to make them unpredictable. Example A is the USA’s surprise silver at the 2013 IAAF Worlds in muddy conditions. Domination by Ethiopia and Kenya is one oft-cited reason for cross country becoming an increasingly insular endeavor; results that are less predetermined may entice broader participation.

Honestly, though, simply qualifying to the Olympics is enough of a draw all by itself, whether for an individual or a national team. That’s another plus for cross country being added to the Olympics. How would teams and individuals qualify? It can’t just be done by qualifying times since every course is different. It would have to be done by some sort of competition-based qualifying system, as is done for soccer’s World Cup. And if teams and individuals had to take pre-Olympic cross country seriously (as opposed to track’s one-and-done qualifying marks), then we have something fairly interesting to watch. NCAA cross country works the same way; for teams on the edges of qualifying to the nationals, the October invitationals and conference championships have something very real at stake. Having something at stake that incentivizes participation by the elites is far better than any “edgy” or “extreme” gimmick.

If Coe can make this happen, it will be the IAAF’s biggest shot in the arm in quite a while.


Handing out the medals for the best in college track…

Gold – Men’s high jump battle at the Texas Tech Classic
Fast times are nice, but what really gets my motor running is great competition. The men’s high jump in Lubbock this past weekend certainly qualifies.

The field included pro Jeron Robinson, the NCAA DII record holder while at Texas A&M-Kingsville; Texas A&M’s Trey Culver, the two-time NCAA champion and current NCAA leader; and Oklahoma’s Vernon Turner, the superstar freshman.

There was some drama at 2.21 meters (7′ 3″), when Turner cleared it on his first attempt, Culver required two attempts and Robinson taking three. When the bar got to 2.30 (7′ 6½”), Robinson and Culver got over on their first attempts while Turner got over on his second. All missed at 2.33 and Robinson took the win over Culver with Turner third.

It was the second-best ever clearance for Culver, who PRed three times in his season opener two weeks ago. It was a PR for Turner and made him the first college freshman to clear 2.30 since Texas’ Andra Manson back in 2004 – and he didn’t do it until June of that year. Turner has another four and a half months to exceed Manson.

Silver – Big marks
The big news of the weekend was UTEP’s Michael Saruni running 1:45.19 at the Texas Tech Classic. It puts him at #2 on the all-time collegiate indoor 800 meter list, and only semantics keeps it from being the collegiate record. The record, as recognized by both the coaches’ association and Track and Field News, is 1:44.84 by Virginia’s Paul Ereng. He ran that at the 1989 World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary, which was during the “collegiate season” but I don’t think you can really call it collegiate competition. I’d argue that Saruni should have the collegiate record but I don’t get to decide these things. Anyway, Saruni ran really fast.

More impressive to me is what Arizona shot putter Jordan Geist did on Saturday. He threw 21.45 meters (70′ 4½”), which is remarkable for a 19-year-old college freshman. The all-time world list for athletes under age 20:
21.97 Konrad Bukowiecki, 2017
21.88 Randy Barnes, 1986
21.45 Jordan Geist, last Saturday
21.35 Ron Semkiw, 1974

Expand that list to under-age-21 and Geist is still #4, being passed only by the great Randy Matson. Expand it to under-age-22 and you get the following:

Geist’s throw amazing given his age, although it comes with the usual caveat that it is ultimately meaningless if it’s a one-off performance.

What’s with the yellow highlight? Those two are current collegians. The other, known in the USA as Mostafa Hassan, is the reigning NCAA indoor champion. So we’re going to get to see several showdowns between the two this year, and maybe as soon as next week. And like I said above, a struggle for victory between two or more great athletes is always more fun to watch than merely breaking records.

Bronze – Lynna Irby, Georgia
Georgia nearly won the women’s NCAA championships last June with all field event and multi athletes. No one had ever won the title without scoring in a running event. Could they do it this year? Not a chance, because Lynna Irby is clearly going to put some points on the board.

The freshman from Indianapolis won both the 200 and the 400 at the Razorback Invitational, both in NCAA-leading times. She set a PR in the 200 and nearly broke her PR in the 400, the latter of which is remarkable considering she won a World Junior silver medal in that event two years ago. In that longer race she beat USC’s Kendall Ellis and Sharrika Barnett, the top two returning athletes from last year’s NCAA 400 meters.


The top meets of the upcoming weekend are rated from one to three dip finishes for sheer watchability…

Three dips: Millrose Games
Live broadcast on NBC from 4:00 to 6:00pm ET, live webcasts beginning at noon
The Millrose Games is a much different meet now than it was decades ago, and much of that change is in a diminished form. One of the positive changes from the 80s and 90s is the return of collegiate athletes to the meet. The organizers do want as many elite collegians as they can get, although there are roadblocks:

Monti is the elite athlete coordinator for such events as the New York City Marathon and Millrose.

The biggest race of the night is the Wanamaker Mile. Only three collegians have won that race in the last 45 years (Graham Hood, Arkansas, 1995; Niall Bruton, Arkansas, 1994; Tony Waldrop, North Carolina, 1974). The odds-on favorite to win this year is 34-year-old Nick Willis, but New Mexico junior Josh Kerr is a smart runner with a big kick who could pull off the upset. A few other races with top collegians who could pull off major upsets over the pros include the women’s mile (Nikki Hiltz, Arkansas, and Elinor Purrier, New Hampshire); the men’s 3000 (Justyn Knight, Syracuse); and the women’s 3000 (Edna Kurgat, New Mexico, and Karissa Schweizer, Missouri).

Three dips: Army at Navy
Live webcast from 11:00am Saturday on the Patriot Network
I can rightly be accused of fetishizing the collegiate dual meet. What can I say, I enjoy team competition. This meet really does live up to the hype, though. It’s the best dual meet of any season. It’s not the highest level of competition, but it is the meet that means the most to its participants. Beating the Navy is the highest athletic honor available at Army, and the same goes at Navy for beating Army. It trumps being an NCAA champion or an Olympian. This is because the two service academies are experiences unlike that any other campuses in America, they are only comparable to each other. If you love the Army-Navy football game, you’ll love this meet even more.

Two dips: Power Five Invitational
This meet brings together eleven teams from the “Power Five” conferences. The best events on the schedule look to be the men’s and women’s distance medley (Stanford, Michigan, Indiana) and the men’s weight throw (Josh Davis, NC State, and Joe Ellis and Grant Cartwright, Michigan).

One dip: Camel City Invitational
Live webcast via RunnerSpace Plus
The interesting races at this meet are the elite end of the meet: 800, mile, and 3000 for both men and women. Each has a few truly top-end pros who are remarkable “gets” considering that the meet is going head-to-head against Millrose in regards to pulling in top talent. The rest of each field is filled out with collegians without quite as much depth (thus the one-dip rating). But one of those entries could make her race quite interesting. That’s Ohio Northern’s Emily Richards, the NCAA DIII record holder. Richards made the final at the USATF Championships last summer and her PR of 2:00.62 is faster than any of the pros or DI collegians in the race.


Stephen Colbert once called for a suspension of a presidential candidate debate because it conflicted with the “unmissable date with passion” that was the premiere of this film. You know it’s bad when Colbert ridicules a movie.

It stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who Robert Ebert said “have a certain immunity against infection by dreck.” The dreck in question? Take every romance-movie trope, put it in a blender, and throw it on the screen. TIME called it one of the ten worst chick flicks of all time and I’m wondering how awful the other nine must be. I actually saw this—there is a certain give and take in every marriage—and at the conclusion my wife said it may have been the worst movie we’d ever seen together in a theater, chick flick or otherwise.

It’s based on a book that was already terrible and somehow optioned into a movie. Gere and Lane are well-off and good-looking fifty-somethings but strangely no one is romantically interested in them. The two schmucks meet in the gorgeous seaside resort town of Rodanthe that is just as realistically empty. They fall into each other’s arms during the weakest deadly hurricane of all time. And then Gere goes off to do a good deed and dies (I think my wife and I high-fived each other over it).
The woman is inconsolable; she will never love again. And then one day she sees a pack of wild horses running along the beach. They represent true love, passion, freedom … whatever. Of course, in the real world, there are no wild horses that run along the beach in Rodanthe. Because the real world isn’t a dumb movie.

Enjoy the meets!

Jesse Squire

I was second in the 1980 Olympic* long jump. (*Cub Scout Olympics, Pack 99, 9-10 age group.)