News & Updates
NZ sends largest team in 28 years to the IAAF World Cross Country Champs
In Aarhus, Denmark on Saturday, New Zealand will send its largest team for an IAAF World Cross Country Championships for 28 years when 16 athletes line up across four events in the Silver Singlet. Steve Landells chats to Athletics NZ Out of Stadia Coordinator John Bowden to find out more.
New Zealand boasts a long and proud affiliation with the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. At the 1975 edition in Rabat the men’s senior team led by John Walker and Euan Robertson helped the men in black to a memorable gold medal. Seven years later Rod Dixon earned a brilliant individual bronze medal behind Mohamed Kedir in Rome and Auckland hosted a hugely successful World Cross Country Championships at Ellerslie Park some 31 years ago.
Yet since the mid-nineties the presence of Kiwis at the World Cross Country Championships – described as the toughest endurance race on the planet – has suffered a steady decline.
What was once a flood, slowly become a trickle and in each of the past four editions of the biennial event since 2011 (note, up until this point the World Cross Country Championships was an annual event) not one solitary Kiwi has taken to the start line.
In his role as Athletics NZ Out of Stadia Coordinator and a four-time former World Cross representative John Bowden was keen to re-establish the event’s status within the New Zealand running community.
While fully acknowledging that high performance sport funding needs to be prioritised around marquee events such as the Olympic Games, World Championships and Commonwealth Games he also intimately knows the heritage and value of competing at the World Cross Country Championships.
“I’m a history buff and love tradition,” explains John. “Cross country featured at three Olympic Games (in 1912, 1920 and 1924) and the World Cross was the event everyone used to run at before trail racing or events like the Coast to Coast existed. I still think it (cross country) is the toughest sport to perform well in and this galvanises coaches and athletes. They know if they perform well at World Cross they can also probably succeed on the track and on the road.”
New Zealand had not one solitary representative in the previous four editions of the World Cross Country Championships, so John and his team set about finding a way to re-engage interest and greater opportunity for Kiwi athletes to compete at the event.
So there was re-evaluation of what was necessary to make the team for a World Cross Country Championships.
“I believed we had to set more realistic standards, which would still be tough but also offer an incentive for to people to make the team,” he adds.
Another area John and the team were keen to focus on was developing U20 athletes and teams. By increasing competitive opportunities on the global stage for age-group athlete it would accelerate their career experiences and emphasising team – the first four finishers from each nation count for the team competition – would add an extra dimension to the race.
Qualification marks for the 10km distance of 30:00 (senior men), 35:00 (senior women) and 32:05 (U20 men) along with 17:30 for the 5km for the U20 women enabled a 21-strong team to be selected with others achieving the mark but choosing not to be nominated.
Should all 21 selected athletes have made it on the plane to Aarhus – note six have withdrawn since the team was announced in January although one more name has been added – it would have matched the previous largest New Zealand World Cross team at the 1988 edition in Auckland.
However, still with the highest number of competing athletes in the event for 28 years and with teams (up to four athletes need to count to qualify for the team competition) in three of the four races; senior men, men’s U20 and women’s U20 – the Kiwis boast a strong contingent in Denmark.
“The feedback from the endurance community in New Zealand has been really positive,” says John. “They have been excited at the opportunity. Many have seen it as a fair but realistic standard. We have widened the net.”
Besides offering a more realistic time to qualify, John also has ambitions to further incentivise the New Zealand Cross Country Championships.
Last year the winner of the national cross was given an automatic nomination to the World Cross and while the ultimate goal for greater quality at nationals cross country champs is still in its infancy he believes the recent selection of Bathurst in New South Wales for the 2021 World Cross Country Championships can only add further momentum to his vision.
“The 2021 champs being awarded to Australia is a big bonus,” he adds. “This will generate more excitement about the world cross. I would like full teams across all grades for Sydney and then hopefully we’ll be able to maintain this in the future. So far there was been a lot of support from athletes, coaches and administrators in the project. In the long-term, I hope that New Zealand can provide teams at all World Cross Country Championships.”
However, in terms of expectations for the 2019 edition in Aarhus, John offers a realistically cautious approach.
“In terms of positions I have no clue but this year’s event will be a good base line from which to work and improve upon for the next edition in two years from now,” he says. “I hope the athletes will learn from the experience, have pride in representing the singlet and learn more about the great tradition and history of the event.”
New Zealand team for the 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships: