It Is Snow Argument: The Case For Cross Country In The Winter Olympics

Noah JampolFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2010

With wintry elements and obstacles, Cross Country can provide a spectacle
With wintry elements and obstacles, Cross Country can provide a spectacleMichael Steele/Getty Images

In a story that was deemed gripping enough to make the headlines section by ESPN editors, the IAAF made waves, er snowdrifts, by requesting that the International Olympic Committee add cross country running to the Winter Olympics program. A worrisome obstacle is the Olympics' charter that states: "only those sports which are practiced on snow and ice are considered as winter sports". Still, I would not be surprised if this charter is malleable considering other known Olympics goals like worldwide participation and the IOC's less outward ones like increasing television ratings and revenues. Logistical issues aside, I absolutely love the idea of having cross country in the Olympiad as both a fan of the sport and a fan of the Olympics. Below are the top reasons that Cross Country running in the Winter Olympics is a perfect fit.

1. Professional Cross Country Running Already IS a Winter Sport
Unlike the high school season and even a significant chunk of the college season, the professional cross-country season has the bulk of its competitions(national/regional, IAAF permit and Championships) between December and March. The Olympics are typically in February, which will suit athletes perfectly. Top athletes have been incorporating cross country into this part of the season for many years. Moreover, it should not severely upset most elites' training as it is months before the summer track season and only interrupts what is a marginalized indoor season as is. Adding Cross Country to the Summer Olympics, would potentially dilute the track events and lead to difficult choices by athletes who would probably favor the more established competition in Track and Field. The Winter Olympics avoids all of these conflicts.

2. It Remedies the New Biannual Format of the IAAF XC Championships
In the past year, the IAAF, citing a lack of financial viability and developed world interest, made the World XC Championships a biannual event instead of an annual one. If the IAAF XC Championships followed the same pattern as the World Track and Field Championships, then there would be an XC title three out of every four years and there would be no conflicts between the meets. This is great for fans, who get to see a championship nearly every year instead of being denied one every other year. The format works perfectly for the track season, and the non-championship year in Cross Country could allow specialists to try their hand at road-racing or indoor track.

3. The Allure of Olympics Medals and Team Competition Will Attract Americans and Europeans
As I just mentioned, a lack of interest in developed countries is part of what is leading to the demise of the IAAF's World Cross Country Championships. In these same countries, the Olympics are paramount for track and field athletes to increase their exposure, marketability and endorsements. Athletes like Dathan Ritzenheim and Ryan Hall frequently skip out on the World XC championships even after qualifying at the USA Championships because of the traveling hassle and the opportunity costs of more profitable ventures. The shot at an Olympic medal and broadcasts on National Television will change all that. Even if the prospects of an individual medal are not bright, a team medal is not unrealistic with the American top guns competing as a team. This introduces another positive aspect of including cross country in the Winter Olympics- the team competition. One area in which the Winter edition pales heavily in comparison to the Summer one, is in the amount of teams/relays and rooting interest by nations and not individuals. Cross Country offers a great team competition, which will draw the top distance runners from European and American countries to compete for a shot at team glory and fame.

4. Picturesque Conditions and Courses Will Be Perfect for HD and Parity
One thing almost every Winter Olympic host has had in common is a beautiful landscape filled with snow-covered trees, idyllic mountains, and vast pockets of mostly untouched nature. There is no better way to showcase this nature than at a cross country course. If organizers place a course by the base of the mountain and have it navigate some of the charming features of the host region's nature, the event will come off beautifully in HD. If there is snow or ice resting on the course or precipitation during the competition, even better. Observe how many non-Hockey watching Americans tune into the NHL's Winter Classics just to see a sport they don't particularly like played in the outdoors.
Another benefit of the wintry conditions is that they will add parity and randomness. Fans of Dathan Ritzenheim can recall him finishing third at the World Juniors Cross Country Championships. There, his familiarity in running on mud emerged as a major competitive advantage. With snow, ice and mud potentially on the course, competitors from cold-weather countries stand a better chance of breaking through against their East African rivals who lack as much experience and familiarity with the conditions. The conditions also bring an intrigue and unpredictability that is non-existent on the track. Some runners thrive in the slop while others struggle, and the course itself can be a crucial character in and of itself.

5. Bringing Africans into the Fold
Interest and participation amongst the African countries in the Winter Olympics will immediately rise to sky-high levels if Cross Country is added. I think you can probably figure out why an every-day Kenyan or Ethiopian has little interest in a team of Canadians playing shuffleboard on ice, or doing Western ballroom routines. Introducing an entire continent into the Winter Olympics can do wonders for the spectacle of the event, and its relevance all around the world.

6. Olympics Cross Country Will Include Athletes from All Disciplines
The best thing about Cross Country on the high school and college level right now is that meets gather together milers, steeplers and 10,000 meter runners, organizes them on one common course, shoot the gun and let the best cross country runner amongst a diverse group win. Point #3 guarantees that fans can see some of the more interesting matchups that we are often denied when athletes split into their specialty events. How does marathoner Ryan Hall vs. Chris Solinsky vs. steeplechase runner Daniel Huling vs. Dathan Ritzenheim on the base of a mountain sound? On the world scene, these types of matchups already happen to some degree with world cross occupying a greater level of importance, but throwing career-changing medals into the mix can only help.

7. Cross Country Will Match Up Well with Other Winter Olympic Sports
Let's be honest here, outside of the Olympic setting you wouldn't be caught dead watching most of the sports. Long-track speedskating? Impressive, but basically watching two men time trial around in a dull, man-made ice arena. Luge, Skeleton, Ski Jumping and Bobsled? Some desirable speed aspect, but there is little else. In general, there are no tactics, no strategy, and no conditions adding any color to the scene. Some of the downhill sports are a bit more compelling, and there's a reason why skiers and snowboarders can become crossover stars. Still, Cross Country with its team aspect, head to head racing and strategy, and the the potential for beautiful outdoor landscapes should be able to compete well with most Winter Olympic Sports in terms of casual fan interest. Running outside is also something most can relate to and in adverse conditions the universality of it is even greater. How many people can say they have participated in the sports that make up the Winter Olympics now? Cross Country can find a niche as a refreshing alternative to some of the other winter sports