Why Isn’t Cross-Country Running in the Olympics?

The steeplechase was originally a cross-country race held in the English countryside.

by Bill Katovsky.

The 3,000-meter steeplechase is always a fun event to watch at the Olympics. Runners must leap over 28 hurdles and 7 water jumps. The Kenyans usually dominate. The race’s origin dates back to 19th century England. Runners hoofed it from one town’s church steeple to the next. The steeples were used as landmarks because of their visibility over long distances. Runners also had to jump streams and low stone walls separating estates. So the steeplechase was originally a cross-country race, and not an event exclusively helf on an oval track.

But an actual cross-country race is not part of the modern Olympics. That wasn’t always the case. Between 1912 and 1924, there was a cross-country running event in the Olympics. So why was it yanked? According to “The Complete Book of the Olympics”, the 1924 race was held on a hot day over a difficult course: One after another strong athletes staggered onto the track.… Out on the roads there were worse scenes of carnage, as various contestants were overcome by sunstroke and vomiting. Hours later the Red Cross and Olympic officials were still searching the sides of the road for missing runners.This event proved to be an almost total disaster, which put an end to cross-country races in the Olympics.”

While one can understand the need for caution and prudence to guarantee the safety of cross-country runners, one would think that nearly 90 years later, runners now know how to deal with heat on a tough course. Furthermore, cross-country races are already an important part of the international racing scene.

Senior men's race at the 2010 IAAF World Cross-Country Championships in Poland.

Senior men's race at the 2010 IAAF World Cross-Country Championships in Poland.

The men’s cross-country race was not the only running event that was terminated at the Olympics. Four years later, six women collapsed after the 800-meter race at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics,

An article in the New York Times Sunday magazine on the eve of the Atlanta Games in 1996, mentioned what happened following the race,: “An alarmist account in The New York Times said that ‘even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength.’ The London Daily Mail carried admonitions from doctors that women who participated in such ‘feats of endurance’ would ‘become old too soon.’

The 800-meter race was discontinued. For 32 years, until the 1960 Rome Olympics, women would run no race longer than 200 meters.

The Times article went on to say: “When the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, one dismissive tradition carried over from the ancient games. All 245 athletes from 14 nations who competed in Athens were men. Women were expected to lend their applause, not their athletic skills. Olympic historians now believe that two women ran the marathon course near or during the Games. If so, the organizers were unimpressed. Distance running by women was thought to be un-ladylike, a violation of natural law. The common wisdom held that a woman was not physiologically capable of running mile after mile; that she wouldn’t be able to bear children; that her uterus would fall out; that she might grow a mustache; that she was a man, or wanted to be one.”

It wasn’t until 1984 that the women’s marathon finally became an officially sanctioned Olympic event. Joan Benoit Samuelson, of Maine, took the gold in that inaugural race in 2: 24. In high school, she had who won the 1975 state championship in the mile –the longest distance a high school girl was then allowed to run in a track meet.

Flash forward to the modern running era. At the 2011 Boston Marathon, almost half the field of 24,340 runners was women. Ninety-eight percent of these 10,285 starters completed the 26.2-mile course. Women runners now make up 41 percent of all marathon finishers in the U.S.

Steeplechase competition at the 1908 London Olympics.

So let’s see the return of the cross-country race in the Olympics. It’s long past due. And there should be both men’s and women’s races.  No gender discrimination, please.

And while we look forward to a cross-country event in the Olympics, there are a number of other sports that were once part of the Games — but were later discontinued. We know that softball was recently dropped. Tug of war was a real crowd-pleaser, from 1900 to 1920.  In 1900, there was the 200-meter swimming obstacle race — competitors had climb a pole, swim under a row of boats and climb over another row of boats. And in 1896, the 12-hour bike race was held for the first and only time. The winner, an Austrian, clocked 180 miles. Only one other cyclist finished.

18 Responses to “Why Isn’t Cross-Country Running in the Olympics?”

  1. Basp Uant says:

    I actualy think it s better that way, keeps the sport pure and away from the corruption… And anyway, who cares about the olympics?
    Look at surfing, one of the greatest sport around, not in the olypics, neither is extreme skiing, ultimate freezbee, and most other fun sports, let s keep it that way

    • ryan says:

      That is not true it is just that there hasn’t been a legitimate bid to make any of those sports to become an Olympic sport. Also cross country is running we have track the marathon which was the basis of the Olympics early on in Greece. I don’t see why it’s not in the summer Olympics. The winter Olympics is a different story and that would be harder to get in.

    • ryan says:

      Also it needs an international federation to represent that sport to then ask for the sport to be put in the Olympics.

  2. Ruth says:

    I think the IAAF need to get gender equality happening first. Cross country is the last bastion of discrimination in competitive running. Women need to run the same distance as men.

    • Kate. says:

      Men and Women’s bodies are made differently.

      • Peggy says:

        Not that differently. In fact, as men and women run farther and farther distances, the differences between men’s and women’s performances get smaller and smaller. Some ultramarathons have even been won by women. Look up Ann Trason.

  3. O. Cabby says:

    This is a great topic. Thousands of high school girls and boys run cross country and the tradition is carried on in college. While watching the U. S. Olympic trials steeplechase asked myself this very question. The steeplechase is a great event but as this writer implies, initially the steeplechase was not run on a track. It was essentially more of a cross country event. It would be a fun event that might inspire more middle school and high school children to participate and compete.

    • abbey says:

      yes my son runs and is very good he ask my they dont have true cross county in the Olympics… i wish i could say work hard and run harder reach your dreams but just not the Olympics sad i would give anything to see my son one day win a medial ….

  4. AxeS says:

    I agree with the author, cross country should be an olympic event. In addition to that the half-marathon should be as well. The half is a far different race from the marathon, akin to the differnce between the 200m and the 400m. While the best athletes at either are usually good at the other, the difference is enough to create crossover in competition that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Similar to cross country.

    • Guy sankey says:

      Totaly agree, cross country is one of the great original disciplines. make it long, hilly and muddy. Half Marathon another absolute must we have 5, 10 and 42k 21k sits perfectly in that.

  5. I completely agree that they should bring back the cross-country competition! This would have been great in 2012, an opportunity to show of some of Britain’s beautiful countryside as well as an exciting contest. As a former competitive runner at distances of 10K, 5K, cross country (2 mile) and track (1500-5000k) runner I can definitively state that running through an urban environment is a million times more dull and predictable than running through countryside – both to perform and to watch. Running around a track is even worse!

  6. Jenny says:

    Diana´s right! We should have brought back the steeplechase for 2012, it would have been a great chance to show the origins of the sport and make it a real chase between steeples! I really enjoyed the road cycling events because they gave us a chance to admire the countryside around London, and a steeplechase would have been great to get the locals in villages involved in the action. Bring it back in Sao Paolo!

  7. hannah says:

    I agree that cross country should be back in the Olympics, I personally love running cross country and I’m sure there are many cross-country runners out there who want to go to the Olympics but can’t because cross country isn’t an Olympic sport. Although there are other long distance events such as marathon I don’t think it’s the same because it’s run on a track.

  8. Nebraska runner says:

    Yes, cross country should be part of the Olympic program and I feel it should be run in the Winter Games (replacing the World Championships in those years). By placing it in the Winter, it would essentially be a draw to ALL the best long- and middle-distance runners in those countries, who would not have to make a choice between their track events and CC. And with computer-chip scoring, intermediate team scores at various checkpoints in the race could make it more spectator-friendly as well. When one thinks of some of the so-called sports in the Games, and then thinks of the hundreds of thousands of runners worldwide, the time has definitely come for Cross Country to be in the Olympics.

  9. Cheri says:

    I wish cross country was in the Olympics. My daughter runs and she it’s so good. But we always have track. Hopefully one day we’ll see her running her little heart out.

  10. Rlt says:

    I’m from a country that has won so far more than 70 official international medals in the last 38 years on European and World championships, at junior and senior levels, individual and national titles in men’s and women’s teams, i only wish cross-country was part of the Summer Olympics.

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