What is the World Orienteering Championships?
The World Orienteering Championships is the pinnacle of the orienteering calendar, bringing the best in the world together to compete for world titles. The competitors are brilliant athletes, with many being international-standard road or cross-country runners as well as having exceptional navigational skills.
It’s held in a different country every year in July or August, and men and women each compete in three individual disciplines as well as in one single-gender and one mixed-gender team race.
What are the different disciplines?
The start order for the individual races is seeded, with the higher ranked athletes starting later, so the final result is rarely known until all the athletes have finished.
With a winning time of 90 to 100 minutes for men and 70 to 80 minutes for women, the Long race tests athletes’ physical endurance. The navigational emphasis is on choosing the right route, often with distances of one or two kilometres between controls. Athletes might have to choose between going over or round a big hill or steep-sided valley, meaning that they need to pick the route that plays to their strengths.
This year the Long race takes place on Friday 7 August in the beautiful, remote Highland wilderness of Glen Affric. With steep wooded slopes and few paths, it should be a real test of athletes’ ability to run and navigate through tough terrain.
The Middle race has a winning time of around 35 minutes and a focus on accurate navigation through complex terrain. The controls are generally closer together than in the Long race, with frequent changes of direction, and total concentration is required to avoid making costly navigational errors.
The Middle race will be held on Tuesday 4 August in the forest of Darnaway, in Moray. The forest has a wealth of subtle contour detail, with many small lumps and bumps which will require careful map reading at high speed.
The shortest of the individual disciplines, the Sprint race has a winning time of 12 to 15 minutes and takes place in an urban setting, presenting athletes with a different set of challenges. With the leading times sometimes separated by mere fractions of a second, competitors need to make lightning-fast decisions and execute their chosen routes without hesitation, all while running as quickly as they can.
There are two rounds to the Sprint race, with the fastest fifteen athletes from each of three parallel qualification races going through to the final. Both the Sprint qualification races (on Friday 31 July) and the final (on Sunday 2 August) will take place in Forres, where athletes will have to adapt their navigational and running styles to a variety of different terrains, from the narrow lanes of the old town and complex housing estates to areas of parkland. The fastest athletes in the sprint competition have recorded track 5,000 m times of under 14 minutes, so high-speed racing is guaranteed.
The two relay championships have mass starts, which introduce the additional pressure of head-to-head racing. Each team member races their course individually before handing over to the next runner, with the first team to cross the finish line being the winner. To stop athletes forming a pack and following one another, there are several slight variations to the courses. To keep it fair, each team runs all the different variations, just not necessarily in the same order.
There are separate men’s and women’s relay races, each for teams of three athletes. The winning time for each leg is 30 to 40 minutes, and the drama of the head-to-head racing makes it tense and exciting for fans as well as for competitors.
The Relay this year takes place on Wednesday 5 August in Darnaway, the same venue as the Middle race, again presenting athletes with a difficult navigational challenge in complex forest terrain.
The Sprint Relay is the newest World Championship discipline, first introduced in 2014. Each country can enter one mixed-gender team of two men and two women, running in the order woman-man-man-woman, with each leg having a winning time of 12 to 15 minutes. Like the individual Sprint race, the Sprint Relay takes place in a mainly urban environment, with athletes having to make split second decisions on which route to take under extreme pressure.
This year’s Sprint Relay venue is the seaside town of Nairn on Saturday 1 August, where athletes will have to contend with both the complex streets of the old town and areas of parkland and sand dunes.
Who gets to take part?
Places in the Long and Middle races are allocated based on performance in previous World Championships, with each country allowed to enter between one and three athletes in each of the men’s and women’s races depending its track record. Every country is allowed to enter three men and three women in the individual Sprint races, and the reigning world and regional champions are also entitled to a place for the relevant discipline. As hosts, Great Britain is entitled to enter three men and women in every discipline.
Every country can also enter one men’s and one women’s team in the Relay, and one mixed-gender team in the Sprint Relay.
How do the countries decide who to select?
Different countries will have different methods, but most will look at a combination of their athletes’ previous track records, results in national championships, and performance in specific selection races. Many athletes choose to specialise and focus their training towards one or two disciplines, while others may compete in most or all of the races.
The World Championships programme is intense, with six races in eight days, and while it may be tempting to pick the strongest athletes for all the races, they won’t be able to perform at their best if they get tired from too much racing.
The selectors for each country will therefore face the difficult dilemma not only of deciding who to pick but also of deciding which races each athlete should run, balancing the athletes’ individual strengths and ambitions with the need to put together strong relay teams.
How do you make sure it’s fair?
To preserve the navigational challenge, as little information as possible about the race is published in advance. Although the general area where each race will take place is known, the exact details of the courses remain a closely-guarded secret, and the athletes won’t know exactly what’s in store until the start of the race.
Athletes and their coaches haven’t been allowed into the race areas for the past couple of years to stop anyone from scouting out the terrain and gaining an unfair advantage. To give foreign athletes an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the unique Scottish forests, Scotland has hosted other major international races over the past few years, and during the week of the World Championships itself “model” races will be staged so that everyone gets a final opportunity to hone their navigational skills in terrain similar to that used for the Championship races.
On the race day itself, athletes will be isolated in a “quarantine area” before they start to prevent late starters from finding out how their competitors are getting on or picking up any tips about the course from earlier runners.
What's GPS tracking?
GPS tracking allows spectators to follow the athletes’ progress around the course in real time. It not only shows you where the athletes are at any moment, but also makes it possible for spectators and TV viewers to watch live as the athletes make crucial route-choice decisions or navigational errors. By looking at the live GPS tracking of an athlete alongside the GPS replay of an earlier starter, you can see exactly where each athlete loses time compared to the other – just as if they were racing head-to-head.