As the world’s best athletes turn to indoor tracks and off-road challenges in the build-up to the outdoor season, many of our athletes shift their focus to the domestic road running campaign, and after five legs in this season’s IAAF Cross Country Permit series, the country has yet to be represented at a single event.
Cross country develops strength, speed and endurance, and is considered as the most crucial element in developing distance running talent.
But while top SA athletes regularly take part in domestic cross country leagues in the South African winter, they have yet to make an impact on the international circuit, where the front running brutality of the discipline can hone every skill needed to shine on the track or the road.
Considered the toughest distance running showpiece in the world, South Africa has never really come to terms with the relentless, gruelling nature of the World Cross Country Championships.
Since 1993, when the country made its full return to global athletics after readmission, South Africa has bagged 16 medals at the World Athletics Championships, eight at the World Indoor Championships, and seven at the World Half-Marathon Championships.
Not once, however, has an athlete stepped on the podium in SA colours at the World Cross Country Championships.
Our women have done far better than the men, with Zola Budd finishing fourth in 1993 and Colleen de Reuck taking fifth place in Stellenbosch in 1996.
Budd won gold twice in the senior women’s 8km race, in 1985 and 1986, but was representing Great Britain at the time, and De Reuck snatched bronze in 2002 after receiving US citizenship.
On the men’s side, the situation is far more bleak, with Shadrack Hoff (1996) and Stephen Mokoka (2011) both finishing 15th, which represents the top performance by a South African in the senior men’s 12km race.
Nobody has finished among the top 10 in any individual world championships race, junior or senior, in the last 17 years, and if the full potential of South Africa’s recent distance resurgence is to be realised, cross country will need to create the foundation, as it has done for many of the most successful careers in history.
The country boasts world-class potential in every men’s track event over the next few years, and if they can harness the challenge of international cross country meetings in the early stages of each season, our top distance runners will set themselves up for a renewed onslaught.
Not only would it give them a better chance of grabbing a maiden medal at the global cross country spectacle, it would also lay the foundation for potentially historic performances at the 2016 Rio Games.