Long distance for discussion

Posted on | November 22, 2016 | Category: News

Photo: WorldofO.com

The GPS-tracking from the Long distance at this year’s World Orienteering Championships showed groups of elite runners catching each other up and running parts of the course together. A view that harms both athletes and spectators. Longer start interval, better forking or maybe a completely new format are some of the suggested solutions.

Individual, Classic and now Long distance. The name has changed a few times since the original individual distance was a part of the first World Orienteering Championships back in 1966. However, the challenge is still the same. An athlete navigating their own way through a physically and technically demanding orienteering course.

The ideal challenge of the Long distance is interrupted when runners are gathered in groups during the race. Not a rare problem for long distance events and neither at WOC 2016. At the Long distance, Judith Wyder got caught up by Natalia Gemperle and they finished together in fourth and second position. In the men’s class different groups were formed, the biggest containing Carl Godager Kaas, Daniel Hubmann and Olav Lundanes, placed fifth, third and first:

A group of Edgars Bertuks, Olav Lundanes, Daniel Hubmann, Carl Godager Kaas and Matthias Kyburz on the way to the 18th control at the WOC 2016 Long distance. Photo: OrienteeringMemes

– It riles me when we see elite runners running in groups like in this year’s WOC. If you are running by yourself, it is really hard to keep same speed as a group that can press each other. It makes for an unjust competition, says Ida Bobach, World Champion at the Long distance 2015 and chairperson of the FootO Athletes’ Commission.

The unjust result of pack formations is shown in a study of WOC 2005 published in Scientific Journal of Orienteering. The effect of pack running generally appears to be an increase of speed of around 4-8% (less for the faster members of the pack), which influences the outcome of the race.


The devil is in the minute

The start interval for the Long Distance was shortened to two minutes for the first time at WOC in 1997 in Norway. Since then, it has been exclaimed that a short start interval increase the possibility of pack running. Therefore, the athletes want the start interval increased:

– The Athletes’ Commission agree about a longer start interval for the Long distance. At least three minutes. We would rather spend longer time in the quarantine if that results in a fairer competition, Ida Bobach says.

Jørn Sundby, who is Senior Event Adviser of the World Orienteering Championships and works with developing TV in orienteering, understands the athletes’ frustration, but with the increasing focus on live TV-broadcasting it is necessary to have a short event:

– With the current concept for the Long distance, the total time for the broadcast is four hours, which already is on the limit of what can be offered to TV-channels. With the current number of participants, winning times and race concept, two minutes start interval is a maximum. Not only for the TV-broadcast, but for the event as a whole. An increase to for instance 3 minutes would mean a competition day of 8-9 hours. Furthermore, we need to pay attention to the workload for the organisers and the attractiveness of the events for spectators at the arena, Jørn Sundby says.

From a spectator’s point of view, the experienced WOC-commentator Per Forsberg agrees with Jørn Sundby when it comes to the start interval:

– As a commentator, I always try to do my very best for the ‘customers’ of my work. With that in mind, I would say that I prefer a two minutes’ start interval because the commentary will be a bit more intense and it will be a bit easier to create exciting commentary, Per Forsberg says.

It has been exclaimed that the Long distance not is suitable for live TV-broadcast at all, and a summary for TV would be the best solution. In that case, a longer start interval would have less downsides, but Jørn Sundby does not buy the idea:

– The long distance is definitely suitable for live TV-broadcast when everything is in place. The long distance is an event where we have time to tell the story, and we can still improve on the use of graphics, for instance. A broadcasted summary of the competition where the result is already known loses all its nerve and drama for the average viewer, Jørn Sundby says.

Jutith Wyder and Natalia Gemperle passing the spectators control at the WOC 2016 Long distance.

More than minutes

The debate about people running in groups at the Long distance needs to be expanded to more than a discussion about two or three minutes start interval, Jørn Sundby thinks:

– There has been several WOC long distance races with two minutes’ start interval without many issues with grouping, most recently at WOC 2014 in Italy. Similarly, there have also been several long distances with three minutes where grouping has been a major issue. Type of terrain and course planning are often the decisive factors, Jørn Sundby says.

A useful tool to separate runners is different forking methods. In recent years butterflies have been a part of the WOC Long distance course, but according to Ida Bobach they have often been too short and therefore not separated the runners as intended.

In the Swedish magazine Skogssport 8/16, triple World Champion at the Long distance Olav Lundanes gives his opinion about groups at the Long distance. He agrees that course planning and forking need more focus to separate runners. For instance, it should be less obvious when you reach a forked control. But the runners also have a responsibility themselves:

– The biggest problem is the athletes’ attitude. I think you find too many who are ok with running together. […] I think it will be hard to change as long as the attitude flourishes that you can be satisfied with a medal won from following someone else, Olav Lundanes says to Skogssport.

Thierry Gueorgiou caught up Lucas Basset and the two Frenchmen ran the last loop of the WOC 2016 Long distance together. Photo: WorldofO.com


Has the Long distance run its course?

Problems with groups at the WOC Long distance were not an exceptional case this year. Therefore, different suggestions have been made to oblige the requirements from live TV-broadcasting and still have a fair competition. A radical suggestion comes from former coach of the Swedish, Norwegian and British national teams Göran Andersson in Skogssport 8/16. He thinks the Long distance in the format we know has run its course and suggests a mass start with different rounds and forkings instead. A mass start would give equal terms and solve the issues with the length of the competition.

A mass start in orienteering could be compared with the changes made in cross-country skiing, where the 50 and 30 km races were changed from individual start to mass start competitions. A change that commentator Per Forsberg does not find that attractive:

– Since the change in cross-country skiing, there have been many quite boring races; often a big group for 49 km and then a sprint for the medals. Not very exciting if you ask me. No, let us keep our profile for the Long distance BUT let us develop and improve the TV- and arena production for this discipline. My point is that spectators and viewers want to have this kind of competition where you can follow the runners from one split to another and compare if the runner has lost or picked some seconds. That is very exciting and something we have to care about, Per Forsberg says.

Talking about changes of the Long distance, Ida Bobach points out that you need to be careful so as not to take it away from its original starting point. In her opinion, a mass start for instance would change the basics of a Long distance in a negative way.

From a personal point of view Jørn Sundby has an idea of keeping the Long distance as we know it and still making it attractive to live TV-coverage:

– An interesting solution would be to have the women’s and men’s long distances on separate days. That would solve the problem with the long competition time, and we could start to work with how to produce an attractive three hours TV-package for each day. That could also open for testing three minutes start interval again. Organising the races on separate days would solve many issues, but also create new ones, as it will affect the use of the arena and terrain and the length of the week, Jørn Sundby says.

It is clear that the pack running seen at WOC 2016 needs to be dealt with. For WOC 2017 in Estonia the plan is to have a full live TV production from the long distance race with a 2 minute start interval. The terrains embargoed for WOC 2017 in Estonia are considered denser with lower visibility, which will reduce the risk of pack running compared to WOC 2016. In addition, the IOF is working in close cooperation with the Estonian organizers regarding course planning and use of forking methods that will minimize the risk of groups forming.


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