ISF; UTWT; IAU; ITRA; IAAF… WTF?

Last week, the Interwebz erupted (slightly – let’s have some context here), when Anna Frost very publicly announced that she was not racing in the IAU World Champs, stating that “The sport will officially become an international ‘athletic’ discipline at the IAAF conference in August and I believe that changes will be implemented to make trail running fit into the IAAF philosophy rather than following the values that our trail running community have created.”

I’m not going into the merits or not, of Anna’s decision – that’s hers to make. One of the main bones of contention that arose from some athletes deciding not to race in Annecy last week is the apparent division now occurring because of the varying rules the numerous governing bodies wish to deploy.

The acronyms above in the title represent that plethora of bodies and championships (some merely subsets of others), that have a hand in our sport. It reminds me of the boxing scene whereby there are four ‘governing bodies’ overseeing the sport. Trail/ultra running looks like it’s headed in a similar direction, so this article will focus on the merits of the situation.

But before we do, have a read of this article from GB runner, Andy Symonds. I think he really nails some great points, so I’ll attempt to use some of the notions and ‘weight’ that Andy has put forward to offer some wider perspective.

Why it’s good to have multiple bodies…

One of the biggest pros is that it represents the chance for variety. The ISF and ITRA have quite different values and propositions. In his post, Andy comments:

“They are not the same thing and they don’t necessarily need to conflict. They are set on different terrain and they have different values. I am a big, big fan of Skyrunning. For me it’s the coolest version of running around, but I know many a trail runner at the World Trail running Championships in Annecy who wouldn’t be seen dead on a real Skyrace course, like Kima, for example. Let’s just accept that and let’s give both of these versions of off-road running a future. They can both have World Championships, Skyrunning can be more branded, with more money, cash prizes etc, whilst the World Trail Running Championships can be run by a separate non-profit federation with its heart closer to the original Olympic values.”

As our sport grows in popularity, it also stands to reason that we need some bods to be in charge and look after us all. It would be a crying shame then if we didn’t have some variety in approaches and in some respects some independence/competition between the bodies – it helps keeps them honest. Look at cycling for example, dominated by ‘brands’ that own teams with the UCI kicking around too.

Look how that’s turned out. Something Andy questioned too: “A sport controlled by the shoe and gear manufacturers. Now that feels like a more dangerous future to me. It means a money-controlled future and with money comes mess, we know that.”

Governing bodies also invest to help our sport to up its game as far as doping is concerned too – Skyrunning has done this well for a long time. Whether we like it or not, it’s an issue we need to face up to. Just take a look at this article on ProPublica that appeared yesterday regarding some of the world’s most talented track athletes – gives me so little confidence in high-end elite sport. If you look at how prevalent drug use is in sport, we’re so naive if we think it’s not going on somewhere in our sport – we’ve already seen races such as Comrades tarnished by drug cheats.

Drug cheats always rely on the “I’ve been tested xx times and never been caught line.” BUT, that doesn’t mean to say they’re not using. There was a famous cyclist who used that line time and time again… We need governing bodies to help us weed out the dirty drug scumbags, but as we’ve seen in cycling, theory and practice don’t always quite fall into line.

The case for not having multiple bodies

The biggest issue it creates is confusion.

Confusion for the average runner who to be frank just wants get on with simply running.

With each organisation we’ll have a slightly differing take on the rules, which leads to ambiguity and lack of clarity. We’re already seeing it in our sport as athletes have different interpretations on the rules, based upon their own heritage and values. A few years ago, some intelligent souls tried to own the definition of ‘trail running’ for heavens sake. Trail running, like your life is what you make it – not how someone tells you it should be. If you want to run up and down a mountain a la Skyrunning, then it’s just running. If you want to run on a fast, flat open firetrail, then heck, last time I checked, it was still running. If you run on a track or road, it’s still just running. Can you spot the common theme here?

Having a number of sporting governing bodies also dilutes the competition at the top end. Right now, we have a number of ‘world championship’ races. Last weekend in Annecy was billed as the ‘world trail championships’, but where the hell were the following runners?

Ricky Lightfoot, Max King, Anton Krupicka, Sage Canaday, Kilian Jornet, Rob Krar, Francois d’Haene, Michel Lanne, Jason Schlarb, Tofol Castanyer, Iker Karrera, Ryan Sandes, Emelie Forsberg, Nuria Picas, Anna Frost, Rory Bosio, Lizzy Hawker

Granted there were some highly talented athletes in that field and no-one is taking anything away from them at all. But the fact is that some athletes view the world championships in a different light to others.

A lot of sports suffer in this regard with a number of governing bodies representing the interests of different groups. It’s a crying shame that for the average punter, we won’t get to see everyone going head to head in one race – money and differing interests take care of that. 

If we’re going to be brutally honest about where we’re going to see the best of the best race, then it’s actually at two or three big races that take place each year:

  • Western States 100 – Although this is still dominated by US athletes – but is regarded as the ‘Grand Daddy of ultras’
  • UTMB – The world’s premier mountain race
  • Comrades – Easily the deepest and best known road ultra globally

The final word

There are two reasons why we’ll probably never see unification…

Money and Ego.

But do we actually want or need our governing bodies to unify?

Look at the issues currently going on at FIFA and the vile corruption that has embodied that organisation for years – The IOC is another classic example. Actually having a number of different organisations could help to keep our sport honest. While we’d love to think that an independent single body would do right by its members, history in sport tells us that this is not often the case.

Ultra running is right at the start of its maturity curve. We have a huge opportunity in our sport to get it right and learn from screw-ups elsewhere. Let’s hope our respective governing bodies do just that and listen to the people who ultimately pay all their wages – the runners.

 

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

6 thoughts on “ISF; UTWT; IAU; ITRA; IAAF… WTF?

  1. This is very interesting BUT for most of us, we don’t give a shit. We just want our race to be there next year or the race we always wanted to do, to still exist and be open to all of us. Oh, seems I do give a shit.

  2. Ultrarunning is very varied and it makes sense to have different governing bodies. That variety is one of the most fun things about it and I love the fact that running can encompass events from a multi-stage event in a desert to 100m sprinting on the track.

    Each form of the sport manages to get together top level athletes (at that niche of running) in a couple of banner events and I don’t believe that there’s one type of race that could or would bring together all the best ultrarunners of every style. The most exciting aspect of the sport is the devotion and obsession that iconic races can generate…personally I’m completely infatuated with Comrades and Western States. Hopefully these major races can keep delivering high quality events, but if they don’t then I’ fully confident others will take over. Who’d heard of Transvulcania before 2012?

    1. Thanks ever so much for coming along and adding a comment Ian, massively appreciated to get some more insight and thoughts from a guy at the top end of the sport. Best of luck for the year ahead.

  3. I think different organization is good for this sport. You can look how WMRA (like sub of IAAF) oriented mountain running. Bruno Gozzelino lead it to little bit harder cross only.
    After meeting of ISF with elite runners during Transvulcania 2012 ISF was assured that realy hard courses are requested by many runners. I can’t imagine how it could be possible to solve when only one organization would exist for mountain running.

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