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January 12, 2022

A Proposal For Improving USATF Cross Country

There may not have been a team on the line, but that didn’t stop the country’s grittiest harriers from lining up at the USATF Cross Country Championships in San Diego. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the 2021 iteration of this race was canceled and with it, the World Cross Country Championships. Well, the World Athletics event which is scheduled to be held in Bathurst, Australia, is technically still happening, but it was postponed until 2022…and now 2023.

To the readers excitedly drafting their letter to the editor about the 2021 Championships that occurred last month in Tallahassee — that’s different. Those were the USATF Club Cross Country Championships! (Note the addition of the word “club.”) The United States has been hosting some version of a national meet since 1883, granted it was much less competitive back then since there were only 38 states competing. In 1998, when the World Cross Country meet added a second race to the program, known as the short course (4K), USATF added a new meet to the schedule. Since the non-club version was used to select the international team, it took with it much of the prestige.

Loyal subscribers of this newsletter know I am leading the unofficial committee to get cross country added to the Winter Olympics, and I like the diversity of the short and long course for it.

But in 2006 World Athletics eliminated the short course and then after 2011 made the boneheaded decision to make the World Championships a biennial event. Despite these changes, USATF has maintained the two-pronged approach to Cross Country Championships.

My proposal: Combine them, again.

The Club Championships are a pilgrimage for local level runners. That makes it a missed opportunity for the masses to not be lining the course screaming for the professionals. In a non-qualifying situation, like this year, the meet would greatly benefit from more fans and more exposure. Additionally, maybe the consolidation of resources would increase the prize purse to something respectable. Earning $2,000 for a national championship is embarrassing and sends a clear signal to athletes that this event isn’t valued. All but a few athletes lose money choosing to compete here, even after running well enough to podium.

Let’s continue to create more racing opportunities for athletes. But as advocates for professional cross country, maybe we have to take one step back before taking two steps forward because this event deserves more hype and more attention.

Photo by Justin Britton/@justinbritton

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