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.