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The disgrace of German Athletics (and Coaches)

Only one single German woman runner started at the 32nd Cross Country World Championships of the IAAF in Brussels—not a glorious chapter for the German Athletics Federation (DLV)


No less than 75 countries participated in the 32nd IAAF Cross Country World Championships on March 20-21, 2004 in Brussels. The IAAF has organized the Cross Country world championships since 1973, the earliest world championship event to be organized under their auspices. Belgium has a long and successful tradition in Cross Country racing. Erik de Beck was world champion in 1974, followed by Leon Schots in 1977, and both Emile Putteman and Gaston Roelant (both BEL) formed the basis of their successes in Cross Country racing.

The outstanding victories by Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) from 2002 – 2004 over both the short and long cross country distances, Ethiopias displacement of Kenya and its long-lasting team dominance in the world championships since 1986, as well as the surprise victory by the Australian runner Benita Johnson on the womens long course are all well known facts and demonstrate that there have been great changes in the international running scene and that no one can keep success all to themselves forever.

It has been recognised that the African runners are not unbeatable. Although the great running nations of England, Portugal, France, Spain and the host country Belgium appeared at the middle of the team rankings, at best, they at least had teams competing—and mostly with young runners. Germany, with the great German Athletics Association, showed up at its neighbour with a single female runner. Susanne Ritter finished in a respectable 23rd place (of 96 participants at the finish). Her race was quite worthy, fighting and improving round for round, demonstrating determination, courage, and a fighting spirit. That was necessary, in light of the cold and windy weather, with a periodic rainbow over the partially muddy course. It was quite embarrassing for the visitors from Germany to explain the lack of German participation in the Cross Country championships, with the exception of Susanne Ritter, to the IAAF officials, press, and foreign functionaries and friends. Especially since theres nothing to explain—all that could be done is to shake ones head. Among the great athletics nations, Germany has now found its place in the rear; there are no athletes in the running disciplines who can come close to competing with the superiority of the winning calibre of other countries, which the large running event organisers bemoan. The lack of perspective and planning by the German Association and the lack of courage by the German trainers—for the running disciplines—is a great disgrace for a once-successful nation.

The German Half Marathon Championships were carried out one week before the Cross Country World Championships. Was a different time plan not possible—or did someone forget it? There is an extra competition at the Cross Country WC for the male and female juniors. With a population of 80 million, can no young running teams be produced? The USA came complete with 6 teams—over 40 participants—flying over 3,000 km over the ocean, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in their team. For the DLV, the 100 kilometres across the border—which they could have biked—were too far. “Participation in a WC is an important investment in the future. The experiences that every young runner makes, regardless of where in the field they end up, will later pay off several fold,“ one USA official said.

This is how new runners are created: The USA Team in the finish area after participating in the Cross Country Championships in Brussels Photo: Victah Sailer

Complete teams were at the start for numerous countries, many of which also did not end up at the top. The German officials, with their tedious counting of medals and rankings, and their attitude that whoever is not among the top six or ten should not even start, hinders future development. In races with such high calibre runners, the athletes have to learn to be tough and gain the will to persevere—something that cannot be learned on a treadmill, on a track, or in a training camp on Lanzarote or Mallorca, but rather by hard fighting out on the terrain—in any weather.

The Australians also flew to Belgium, even though it was certainly not as stormy at home, and they brought a victory back home with them. Their teams reflect a good variety in ages. The old warhorse Steve Moneghetti, born in 1962, (BERLIN MARATHON victor in 1990) runs in a team in which several runners are 20 years younger than he is—and the youngsters learn how to really toil and to fight with him to the finish.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained. The calamity of German athletics is unfortunately widely known. But the trainers are “protecting their protégées to death.“ Everyone is preparing for the Olympic Games in Athens 2004, and forgetting the most obvious—that they should already be facing their future opponents on the track or on the streets—even if it means that they might be running behind them.

Germany is applying to the IAAF to host various track and field world championships, as well as other high calibre sport fests. It is certainly counterproductive to not use these other venues throughout the world to show off Germanys own athletic potential.

Wilfried Raatz, the lone proponent from Darmstadt for the upkeep of cross country running, has been bemoaning the lack of interest by the DLV in cross country running for years—and the opportunities that are lost for the development of a young athletes running career by the eradication of this “basic gear.“ He was not just being a pessimist: the negative developments within the DLV in the sport of running have proven him right so far. Detlef Uhlemann, who himself place third in the Cross Country World Championships in 1977 and is now the DLVs representative for cross country, will have a hard time rescuing this so far hopeless situation so that a change of attitude can finally be made in Germany.

Paula Radcliffe (GBR) was a two-time world champion and Paul Tergat (KEN) was a five-time champion in cross country—and both are now the reigning world record holders in the marathon. That actually should be enough of a reason to support cross country as a forum for the development of future runners. On December 12, 2004, Germany has the delicate situation of hosting the European Cross Country Championships in Usedom/Heringsdorf. One could sarcastically state in advance that we will be drastically increasing to two (2) German participants for Usedom—or the other alternative argument by the German trainers in the DLV could be: “We have very calmly started our preparation for the Olympic Games in Peking 2008, and this date does not fit well into our long-term training plan.“

Horst Milde

PS: In explanation–the author initiated the 1st Berlin Cross Country Race on the Teufelsberg Mountain on November 8, 1964, which celebrated its 40th anniversary on November 9, 2003. He applied with the DLV on January 24, 1973 to introduce the German Cross Country Championships (replacing the Waldlauf (Forest Run) championships) and organized the 2nd German Cross Country Championships on March 1, 2975 with SCC, as well as the 8th German Cross Country Championships on February 28, 1981 on the Teufelsberg for the DLV.

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