Usually at this time of the year we are looking forward to the Belfast International Cross Country but after 42 years our local cross country classic has been gently laid to rest. Once the highlight of the winter season, it is no longer with us. And like the parrot in the Montyn Python sketch, they tell us it is merely resting but we know better. It is dead! It is no more! It has ceased to be! It is said to be the victim of a clash of dates with its more famous sibling in Scotland, the Great Edinburgh Cross Country, but one questions whether another date could not be found.
The cross country classic was first hosted in 1977 and has gone under a variety of guises. For the 2000 and 2001 races, it was known as the Fila International Cross Country, for the 1995-1999 meetings as the Coca Cola International Cross Country; for the 1994 race, it went under the banner of the Ulster Milk Games International; for the 1992-1993 races, it became the Reebok International Cross Country; for the 1989 race, it was titled as the Brooks International Cross Country; for the 1990-1991 and 1977-1988 races, it became the Mallusk Cross Country. Many names and a few locations but consistently an opportunity to see world class performers on our own doorstep.
The fixture has seen some of the world’s best runners compete. Waterford man Gerry Deegan was the winner of the first race with Olympic gold medallist Steve Ovett taking the laurels the following year. The Brighton athlete returned in 1984 to lift the title for a second time but in the meantime Ireland’s two-time world champion John Treacy had prevailed over a strong field in 1982. It was shortly afterwards that the east Africans claimed ownership of the race with American Dathan Ritzenhein, in 2005, being the last non-African to cross the finish line in first place.
The women’s race was added in 1986 with Susan Tooby, now Wightman, from Wales the first winner. Running legends like Liz McColgan (1987/1988) and Paula Radcliffe (1994/1996/2000/2001) claimed multiple wins while Irish athletes have held their own in the women’s event, with Roisin Smyth (1990), Catherina McKiernan (1992/1993), Mary Cullen (2010) and Fionnuala McCormick (2012/2013) all claiming wins.
It could be seen as purely a sop to the local followers of the sport when the Bobby Rea Memorial in November was rebranded an international. A few runners from across the water do not make an international. Many felt they were being offered a slug as a replacement for a Norwegian Blue parrot!