Cross-country, also called cross-country running, long-distance running over open country; unlike the longer marathon race, cross-country races usually are not run along roads or paths. Events are held during the fall or winter months, and many amateur athletes use the sport as a means of keeping fit and developing stamina.
A form of cross-country running in the early 19th century was called paper chasing, or hare and hounds—the “hares” started a few minutes before the others and left a trail of paper scraps to be followed by the “hounds.” Cross-country runners came to be known as harriers, after a small hound used to chase genuine hares. A significant event was the founding of the Crick Run at Rugby School in 1837. Many other famous schools followed suit in holding annual cross-country races. Thirty years later the Thames Rowing Club held cross-country runs and races as a winter sport to condition rowers, and in a few years many other clubs were formed throughout England. English championships over the senior distance of 10 miles (16,090 metres) were first held in 1877. The famous Midlands Club’s Birchfield Harriers won many of these events thereafter. The number of runners in this event increased from 33 in the first race to 900 in the second half of the 20th century.
The first international race was held in 1898 between England and France, and in 1903 a championship was instituted among England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In 1907 France first competed in this championship, followed by Belgium in 1924; Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, and Switzerland first competed in 1929; and other countries entered the international competition after World War II.
In 1962 the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF; later International Association of Athletics Federations) adopted rules governing championship and international cross-country running events both for men and for women. The first women’s international cross-country event was held at Barry, Wales, in 1967. Formerly included on the Olympic program, cross-country was dropped after 1924 as not suitable for summer competition.
IAAF standard distances for international competition are not less than 12,000 metres (7.5 miles) for men, and 2,000–5,000 metres (1.25–3 miles) for women. Because of the varying difficulty of courses, world records are not maintained. Cross-country teams are made up of six to nine athletes. In scoring, the places in which team members finish (e.g., one point for first place, two points for second) are added together, and the team with the lowest total wins.