Orienteers point athletes in right direction

Niggli-Luder (centre) with one of her gold medals RTS

As Swiss orienteers swept up the world-championship medals in Japan this weekend, the country's top track-and-field stars were limping home from Helsinki.

This content was published on August 15, 2005 - 18:44

Switzerland failed to pick up a single medal at the World Athletics Championships in the Finnish capital – and experts believe the sorry state of affairs is set to continue.

The Swiss Athletics Federation could only engage in damage limitation on Sunday, speaking of the need to look to the future and continue to invest in up-and-coming talent.

The tournament aftermath could not have been more different halfway across the world in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi, where the Swiss were showing off no fewer than four gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

But Swiss sports journalist Marco Keller says it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions from the contrasting performances.

He points to the fact that the International Athletics Federation is made up of more than 200 countries, whereas its orienteering equivalent boasts just 65.

"Simply put, in athletics there is much more competition," Keller told swissinfo.

"Look at it this way: 40 countries took at least one medal in Helsinki. Orienteering on the other hand is done seriously only in a very small number of countries."

Limited appeal

Orienteering – where athletes navigate their way around a course with designated control points - originated in Scandinavia and has only spread in a limited way to other parts of the world.

"The African continent has produced some outstanding athletes, particularly in the running disciplines. But you don't see anybody from an African nation going for an orienteering medal," said Keller.

"Also, though we shouldn't take anything away from the Swiss success in orienteering, bear in mind that Switzerland has only recently excelled in this sport and this is primarily down to one person: Simone Niggli-Luder."

The 27-year-old from Bern, who rose to international prominence at the 2003 World Championships in Rapperswil-Jona, swept the board with four gold medals in Japan.

New talent

Her dominance of the discipline has encouraged a new generation of budding Swiss orienteers to pick up a compass and map – something which Keller believes could help to ensure that the medals do not dry up when Niggli-Luder retires.

"The Orienteering Federation has a very good programme for attracting young people to the sport," said Keller.

"Those in charge have shown themselves willing to use the Niggli-Luder effect... and they really seem to want to keep the momentum going."

Keller contrasts this approach with the youth-training programmes offered in athletics, which he says have proven to be more "difficult to get going".

"One reason for this is the infrastructure. Budding orienteers basically just need a forest [to train in]... whereas [track-and-field] athletes need much more in the way of sports facilities," he said.

Bucher effect

Niggli-Luder may be at the top of her sport today, but four years ago it was Swiss athlete André Bucher who was racing to gold-medal glory.

The 28-year-old 800m runner - who was knocked out during the early stages of this year's world championships - has been written off as a has-been by many commentators.

The Swiss Athletics Federation is struggling to find a successor to Bucher, says Keller, and is guilty of waiting too long to nurture new talent.

"Look at what happened in alpine skiing, where we were very successful in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time the [powers that be] forgot about the basic work needed to train the new generation.

"The result is that today in alpine skiing Switzerland is absolutely nowhere. And I fear that a similar thing could happen in athletics. The moral of all this is that you should never rest [on past victories]. If you do, you've already lost."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The World Athletics Championships in Helsinki and the World Orienteering Championships in Aichi, Japan, both wrapped up at the weekend.
In orienteering, Switzerland won four golds, two silvers and two bronzes.
In athletics, the nine-strong Swiss team returned home without a single medal.

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