A foot race held over either (i) a natural outdoor route in the countryside containing natural obstacles such as hedges or streams or ditches, or (ii) a route that includes manufactured obstacles such as hurdles. Races were run in England in the later 1800s by rowing clubs in order to enhance and sustain the fitness of oarsmen, and wealthy landowners had staged such races in the 18th century, wagering between each other on the racing performance of their footmen. The first English championship was run in the Epping Forest in 1876, and the first men's international contest was between England and France in 1898, the first women's international being between the same nations in 1931. The individual (from 8,000 to 12,000 metres) cross-country event was held three times at the Olympic Games, in 1912, 1920, and 1924. It might have been acceptable at Stockholm in 1912, the top seven finishers coming from Finland or Sweden. But on one of Paris's hottest-ever days in 1924, only the legendary Paavo Nurmi could finish comfortably, the first home of 15 finishers from a field of 38. Others were still missing hours later, and sunstroke and vomiting decimated the field. Cross-country running was never included in the Olympic programme again.
The International Cross-Country Championship, inaugurated in Scotland in 1903, was dominated in its early years by English runners and teams, France becoming the first international team to defeat England, in 1922. The International Athletics Association Federation's world championship replaced that event in 1973, and though runners from Europe and the USA were prominent in early contests, the event has become increasingly dominated, in both men's and women's categories, by Ethiopian and Kenyan runners. Winners of the women's event who have come from the British Isles include South African expatriate Zola Budd (1985–6), Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe (2001–2), and Sonia O'Sullivan (1998) from Ireland. Cross-country running continues to appeal to endurance runners and the athletics public alike, in its elemental natural appeal and its defiance of the controlled, measured criteria by which much of contemporary athletic performance is gauged—though a not always welcome reminder for generations of school-goers of the miseries of the enforced cross-country run on a wet and windy winter afternoon.
Subjects: Sport and Leisure.