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Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Friday, 2 April 2010 13:24 UK

What is behind Europe's cross-country woes?

Farah came in 21st, while Ebuya secured victory for Kenya in Poland
Farah came in 21st, while Ebuya secured victory for Kenya in Poland

Mark Butler
By Mark Butler
BBC Sport's athletics statistician

Aside from the junior women's team, who finished fifth, Britain's athletes were sadly not near to the medals at last weekend's World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

However, the placings of Mohamed Farah (21st) and Stephanie Twell (23rd) were reasonable. Counting Europeans only, Mo and Steph were second and third respectively.

It seems that there are fewer people taking up distance running seriously in Europe and the UK

It is a far cry from the early years of the event when athletes from the home nations of the United Kingdom were dominant.

From the inaugural event in 1973, until 1986, there were 12 British gold medals across all the disciplines. Since then only Paula Radcliffe has stood on top of the podium.

Britain are one of only six countries to have appeared at every edition of the championships.

In recent years the number of European entrants has declined and only 18 out of 50 eligible European countries competed this year despite the championships being staged in the heart of the continent.

Ironically, the British selectors came under criticism in this country for not sending more athletes, but our team was huge in comparison with Germany, Romania and Ukraine (no entries) or Belgium, Ireland and Holland (only four runners in total).

Participation by continent at World Cross Country in 2010 compared to (1973)
Africa 39.1% (7.7%)
Europe 30% (85%)
North America 10.1% (2.4%)
Oceania 5.7% (4.9%)
Asia 13.3% (0%)
South America 1.8% (0%)

So what has brought about the decline of Europe and Britain in this classic test of distance running power?

The base of the pyramid of talent is smaller and so the pinnacle is lower.

Yet the reverse is true for the nations of East Africa and in particular Kenya who won all eight golds in Bydgoszcz.

Thanks to better organisation, management and coaching in those countries - most of it driven by Europeans - more Kenyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Ugandans are able to reach world-class level.

Outside of this bloc only the USA's senior women's team got among the medals in Poland.

It seems that this dominance is now alienating the rest of the world when it comes to entering a championship, but nothing should detract from the quality of the winning performances even if the victorious nations are somewhat predictable.

I would argue that in 2010 it is a wonderful story that a man like Kenya's Joseph Ebuya has risen from poverty to become world champion at the age of 22.

This is World Championship competition at its purest, and the sight of masses of Kenyan and Ethiopian vests at the fore of a world-class distance race remains one of the greatest in world sport.


Who wants to go back to the 1970s when less than 10% of the World Cross entries were from Africa? In 2010 that figure was up to 39.1%, the biggest share from any continent.

Europe, meanwhile, has dropped from 85% to 30%, though the 2010 figure was up on the previous four years.

Now, the IAAF is planning to switch the championships from an annual format to occurring every two years.

They will encourage continental areas to stage their own championships in the hope that this will rekindle enthusiasm for the discipline and help close the gap on East Africa.


1973 6

Roger Clark ENG 2 Joyce Smith ENG

1974 4 Jim Brown SCO 3 Rita Ridley ENG

1975 1 Ian Stewart SCO 7 Ann Yeoman ENG

1976 2 Tony Simmons ENG 4 Ann Yeoman ENG

1977 5 Bernie Ford ENG 7 Ann Yeoman ENG

1978 4 Tony Simmons ENG 9 Joyce Smith ENG

1979 4 Tony Simmons WAL 9 Ann Ford ENG

1980 3 Nick Rose ENG 7 Penny Forse ENG

1981 4 Julian Goater ENG 14 Christine Benning ENG

1982 5 Mike McLeod ENG 13 Ann Ford ENG

1983 7 Dave Clarke ENG 18 Christine Benning ENG

1984 2 Tim Hutchings ENG 5 Jane Furniss ENG

1985 18 Dave Lewis ENG 1 Zola Budd ENG

1986 16 Dave Clarke ENG 1 Zola Budd ENG

1987 10 Dave Clarke ENG 2 Liz Lynch SCO

1988 13 Roger Hackney GBR 2 Angela Tooby GBR

1989 2 Tim Hutchings GBR 7 Jill Hunter GBR

1990 18 Richard Nerurkar GBR 35 Sonia McGeorge GBR

1991 19 Eamonn Martin GBR 3 Liz McColgan GBR

1992 15 Richard Nerurkar GBR 8 Jill Hunter GBR

1993 32 Andrew Pearson GBR 5 Liz McColgan GBR

1994 32 John Nuttall GBR 45 Laura Adam GBR

1995 20 Andrew Pearson GBR 18 Paula Radcliffe GBR

1996 12 Jon Brown GBR 19 Paula Radcliffe GBR

1997 14 Jon Brown GBR 2 Paula Radcliffe GBR

1998 38 Glynn Tromans GBR 2 Paula Radcliffe GBR

1999 8 Jon Brown GBR 3 Paula Radcliffe GBR

2000 13 Karl Keska GBR 5 Paula Radcliffe GBR

2001 38 Karl Keska GBR 1 Paula Radcliffe GBR

2002 43 Sam Haughian GBR 1 Paula Radcliffe GBR

2003 49 Matt Smith GBR 19 Hayley Yelling GBR

2004 19 Jon Brown GBR 11 Kathy Butler GBR

2005 37 Mo Farah GBR 27 Mara Yamauchi GBR

2006 77 Gavin Thompson GBR 23 Mara Yamauchi GBR

2007 11 Mo Farah GBR 15 Hatti Dean GBR

2008 62 Tom Humphries GBR 15 Liz Yelling GBR

2009 74 Frank Tickner GBR 38 Stephanie Twell GBR

2010 21 Mo Farah GBR 23 Stephanie Twell GBR

see also
Kenya control World Cross Country
28 Mar 10 |  Athletics
Britain's most successful athletes
18 Mar 10 |  Athletics
When Boxer set the standard
04 Aug 09 |  Athletics
Richards set for 400m landmark
09 Jul 09 |  Athletics
Medals, money or both?
12 Jun 09 |  Athletics
GB women show Berlin credentials
03 Jun 09 |  Athletics
When is a record not a record?
19 Feb 09 |  Athletics

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