When Bydgoszcz hosts the 40th IAAF World Cross Country Championships on 24 March 2013, it will mark the third time that Poland plays host to the world’s finest middle and long distance runners. Another gathering will be a fitting return to a country whose storied tradition has provided many notable contributions to the history of distance running.
The first World Cross Country Championships in Poland were held in Warsaw in 1987, hosted at the Sluzewiec Hippodrome, the country’s biggest race track, with three large grandstands set up to accommodate 30,000 spectators. The men’s winner that year was the Cross Country legend-in-the-making, John Ngugi of Kenya, who captured his second of four consecutive, and five overall individual titles. Underscoring the success of those championships, 576 athletes from 47 countries competed in the Polish capital, the second highest total among participants until that point.
Bydgoszcz hosted the event in 2010, an edition that witnessed Kenya’s historical sweep as the it became the first nation to win all gold medals at stake, four individual and four team titles. The individual highlight for the east African powerhouse was delivered by Joseph Ebuya whose victory ended an 11-year individual gold medal drought for Kenyan men.
Ngugi’s success in 1987 built upon that of Ethiopians Mohamed Kedir and Bekele Debele in 1983 and 1984, which began the virtually non-stop dominance of east and north African athletes in the World Cross Country Championships. Prior to the mid-1980s, success over the snow, mud and grass was largely centred in Europe, with some notable performance by Polish runners figuring into the equation as well.
Poland’s best-ever finish at the World Championships came in the 1979 edition in Limerick, when Bronislav Malinowski finished second to the defending champion, Irishman John Treacy. By then, the Pole was already a two-time European champion in the 3000m Steeplechase, and the reigning Olympic silver medallist. The following year he would follow up with Olympic gold in Moscow.
Although nearly three decades have passed since his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1981, Malinowski remains a giant in Polish middle and long distance running, with four national records - Mile (3:55.40), 3000m (7:42.4), 5000m (13:17.69), and 3000m S/C (8:09.11) – still bearing his name.
But the first Polish podium success at the World cross came four years earlier. Bronislawa Ludwichowska followed up a sixth place showing in 1974 with a runner-up finish in the 1975 edition in Rabat, leading the Polish women’s squad to a bronze medal finish.
Kusocinski, the father of Polish distance running
Those modern-day successes can trace their roots to Poland’s most illustrious distance running name, Janusz Kusocinski. Taking up athletics in 1928, Kusocinski became Poland’s finest middle and long distance runner by 1931. The following year, he broke the world record in the 3000m, clocking 8:18.8 in Antwerp, eclipsing a mark set by Paavo Nurmi nearly six years earlier. A month later he claimed an upset victory in the 10,000m at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Running at the front from the 1000m point, the Pole eventually reached the line in 30:11.4, at the time, the second fastest performance ever. The annual Kusocinski Memorial athletics meeting, honouring his achievements and place in Polish athletics history, celebrated its 58th edition this year.
Taking the distance running mantle from Kusocinski was Jerzy Chromik, who like Malinowski, was a pivotal name in the history of the steeplechase. Chromik set three World records in the event, his first of 8:41.2 in 1955 and his last, 8:32.0, in 1958, the same year he captured the European title in Stockholm.
Chromik’s record stood until 26 June 1960, when another Pole, Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak, the reigning continental 5000 and 10,000m champion, clocked 8:31.4. Just over two months later, Krzyszkowiak captured Olympic gold in Rome. The following year he took the World record down even further with an 8:30.4 performance before injuries forced an end to his career.
Taking over the reigns after Malinowski’s untimely death was Boguslaw Maminski, who took the silver medal in 3000m Steeplechase at the 1982 European championships and repeating the feat the following year at the inaugural IAAF World Championships.
While Polish women achieved significant success in the sprints and field events over the years, among the first distance runners to take the spotlight was Wanda Panfil, a two-time Polish Sportswoman of the Year. Panfil won the 1991 World title in the Marathon, and collected high profile victories in London, New York, Boston and Nagoya as well.
Justyna Bak, who won silver and bronze medals at the European Cross Country Championships, twice set World records in the 3000m steeplechase, most recently in 2002 with a 9:22.29 run. Another successful marathoner, Renata Kokowska, was a three-time winner of the Berlin Marathon in the early 1990s.