The revival of South African cross country
26 August 2016
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. It’s time to chat about a sub-set of running, if you’d like, that keeps on popping up on this podcast. I thought we’d dig a bit deeper and find out more about it because more and more people are talking about it.
It’s doing great things for South African running. I’m talking about cross country. We’re joined now by the Athletics South Africa Chairman for cross country Jakes Jacobs. Jakes, welcome, thanks for joining us today, good to have you on.
Jakes Jacobs: Morning Brad, thank you very much, it’s an honour for me to be on the line.
Our international cross country dip
BB: Jakes, the reason I say it’s popping up more and more, I chat to lots of elite athletes here on Old Mutual Live and more and more of them are talking about the role that cross country and the cross country leagues in South Africa are playing in their training.
Cross country has been around for a long time, I think back to the 80’s with someone like Zola Budd – back then – and how she used to race cross country, Elana Meyers. It’s coming through a bit of a revival now, there was a bit of a dip but it’s definitely on the up again.
JJ: Yes, Brad. It’s definitely on the up, most of the provinces have got a major increase in that one. If you look at cross country, it’s the only one where you can really do development. The word sounds bad, but it’s development where we start from the youngest and where every age category running together.
We did have a slump in our seniors for a while, but with the past two years that we’ve been at African Champs and at the World Cross Country. I believe that there’s a new revival between the senior athletes that see that’s the platform to go onto the world stage.
BB: Jakes, what’s the reason for that slump, what caused it? I’m glad it’s on the up because I love cross country, but what was the reason for the decline?
JJ: I believe that there was the lull in the provincials also, it was just the same things that we did. That we did the normal league on the normal principles. Since we have been back at the World Champs and at the African Champs at the beginning of this year in Cameroon. Where we’ve received three Silver Medals, which was very good for the team. I believe that the athletes will buy into that again.
That the world platform is the time where you’ll be noticed, where the agents are and where you can be part of a team. Individual selection is very difficult, team selection is very important for guys to run together and that they can train together and run together. Make a statement that you can be other ones by competing against them.
Cross country events are for everyone
BB: Jakes, correct me if I’m wrong here, but one thing that I’ve noticed and I say we talk to a lot of elite athletes, but I talk to a lot of runners who might not win races. But they want to get better in their own way. They’re not necessarily professional runners and they are running more and more cross country. Cross country and the leagues are not just for the elite, anyone can go and run cross country and be part of this league system?
JJ: You are so right Brad, it’s absolutely for everyone to participate. We are very excited this year, we are introducing, from the World Champs side, there’s a relay event coming. So we’re bringing that in and I spoke to all the provinces, we’re bringing a relay in. Where everybody can participate and make some real differences because everybody can run 1km and 2km.
If we look back at our event last year in Mpumalanga, the 4km event at the end of the day which was an u23 event had a tremendous field running. Most of them, all of our young national and some track athletes are participating at the event. They feel comfortable to come and run 4km, on the cross country course. Because it’s good, in-between middle season, training between track April/May and track September/October. So it’s the perfect time for them to do that.
We had a wonderful field in that one and I really feel we will have a great event again this year coming up. We’re also, as I said, introducing the relay which is a mixed one and just to bring something back that the guys can see and the girls. There is really something different that we can get out of cross country.
BB: I think it’s a fantastic way to get better as a runner. I also remember, as a school kid, I’m not going to give away my age Jakes, but it was a long time ago. I remember us running cross country at school level. Is that being implemented, is it still carrying on in schools, do we have a schools cross country league?
Keep cross country strong at school level
JJ: Yes, there’s a very strong cross country league in the schools. That is basically our heartbeat of the sport, to start for them. Also at our SA Champs we’re running all of them from the 8-year-old level 1km up to 17/18 years for all the schools. We only select out of 16, 17 and 18, that age for the next year cross country where they should be eligible for the age selection criteria.
The schools is very strong, we had last year 3 500 members participating on one day at a cross country event in Mpumalanga. We’re also looking at the same amount this year again in George. It was the same in 2014 also, we had over 3 500 again, also participating in George in 2014.
BB: That’s brilliant. Jakes, as it continues to grow because there is definitely something happening in cross country, it’s making the right noises, it’s definitely getting us back to where we should be. What are you working on, what are you trying to improve, what needs to get better?
JJ: We need to look at one or two small changes that we can do. The one will be three or four inter-provincial leagues that we need to run. That the guys can see on what level they are, the different provinces. That we can have, which is not the end of the world to travel to destinations.
The current layout of the country is that we can do a very easy competition inter-provincial and have an event, we’re even thinking of bringing a mile event in. That we can have a shorter distance that the guys can come, run the event and go back and see there’s some real changes.
Not a 10km because not everybody wants to run a 10km event, if you look at the senior men and women. That’s the international distance, we have to run that and we have to be creative because on international levels you run 2km loops. Sometimes the course is not always that spectator-friendly that people can see the athletes.
The other thing is that the athletes think it’s boring to run on a 2km loop and do five loops on 2km. I really think if we do inter-provincial on a shorter distance with relays, that the vibe can come back and that we will do that. Obviously you need to award the seniors with prize money at cross country, which will be again this year taking place.
BB: Jakes, I think it’s fantastic, I love the fact that we are really building from this level because if we’re going to produce world class marathoners in the years to come. It’s got to come through the ranks and it’s got to be on the track and it’s got to be cross country. I think it bodes well for South African athletics. A question which you might not be able to answer, but do you think Park Run and the phenomenon of Park Run has played a little part in the revival of cross country in SA?
JJ: I do believe Park Run and all the affiliated events which is not on our actual running calendar is boosting the whole sport of running. It is the platform to show the people that it is and it’s so important that people when they’re at any event. Be going away with a positive idea, it was a good experience that I had and it was something well presented.
That is my biggest appeal to everybody, when you present something, do it to the highest standards, that everybody participating, even if it’s the Park Run or a normal fun run at a marathon event or whatever, that it be of a high standard. That the guys and the girls participating, that they can come back with a good experience that I want to run that.
We can only bring track back if they’ve got speed on the track, if they start at cross country. Cross country is the whole platform, development platform for all the sport. After cross country you go to track, after track you go to road and road up. Obviously at the moment is revising itself and speaking some good challenges for South Africa. I’m very well aware of our marathon athletes that will go run the 42km distance guys for the Olympics.
BB: That’s fantastic, Jakes finally, if somebody wants to find out more about cross country, perhaps they’re in one of the provinces and they’d like to take part in one of the leagues, what’s the best way to go about it and find out more about these leagues and how they can run?
JJ: All the provinces have a league system running, every province. I have been busy with the manual currently, I spoke to all of them, they’re all in their league programmes. So all the provinces have got their websites and their leagues are advertised on the provincial website.
If they want to contact me, they can contact me directly, I’ve got no problem, you’ve got my number, you can give my number to them or even advertise the number, it’s not a problem. They can talk to us and let’s see how we can revive that for the future.
BB: Jakes, congratulations, I think it’s brilliant what you guys are doing. Well done, keep up the great work, we look forward to seeing the fruits of all this labour. Cause it’s going to come in the years to come and we can’t wait to see what the world class athletes this does produce so well done, keep it up.
JJ: Perfect, thank you very much, we must make an appointment for after SA Champs, the weekend of 10th September, you must give me a call and we can give some feedback to you.
BB: It’s a date, I’ll make sure my producer gets in touch and we’ll chat.
JJ: Perfect, thank you so much, have a great day, thank you for this.