Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Is Trail Running killing Orienteering?

The word “choice” is one of the most employed in the Orienteering lexicon, being part of its essence as a sport. On the 14th and 15th January, in the opening round of the Vitalis Portuguese Foot Orienteering League 2017, several of the best portuguese orienteers made the “choice” to miss the event at Lagoon of Ervedeira. Let's try to know why.

Held in Lagoon of Ervedeira, Leiria, the first round of the Vitalis Portuguese Foot Orienteering League 2017 attracted nearly six hundred participants, a number that should be considered excellent compared to the current panorama of the sport in Portugal. Contrasting with these numbers, however, the Elite category registered a competitiveness index lower than expected, with the best national orienteers missing the event. In order to find a reason why, we talked to Tiago Martins Aires, Miguel Reis e Silva and Leonel Vieito, trying to answer some pressing questions that arise the Portuguese Orienteering currently.

Surely, it was not the lack of organizational quality that motivated such absence. The Clube de Orientação do Centro has always been an organizational bastion in Portugal and its events have the “seal of quality”. The coastal terrains, the micro-relief and vegetation of the Atlantic Forest and the challenge of the courses are enough reasons to attract the best athletes in the World, especially in the Winter. The accessibilities also aren't an excuse to miss the event, since this is one of the areas of this country that can please “Greeks and Trojans”, that is to say, people from the North and from the South of the country. So, what led Tiago Aires and Mariana Moreira, Raquel Costa and Tiago Romão, among others, to not attend the event in Leiria? We might find the answer in Portalegre, in the so called “Trail of the Kings / Delta Cafés”, a Trail Running event framed in the National Circuit of the Trail Running Portugal Association.

Orienteering has no fashion, style, color”

Recognized by many as the best Portuguese orienteer ever, Tiago Aires joined to the first place in the Vitalis Portuguese Foot Orienteering League 2016 the title of National Trail Running Champion, also becoming the best Portuguese athlete in the recent Trail Running World Championships, after finishing in the 13th position. Speaking to the Portuguese Orienteering Blog about his “polyvalence”, he immediately ends all speculation: “Orienteering is, and will always be, the best sport in the World”, he says. But adds: “I think it's too simplistic to look at the Orienteering crisis as a duel with Trail Running, anyway. Orienteering's problems are, in its core, the lack of publicity and the inability to attract new people to practise this sport.”

Analysing what happened at Lagoa da Ervedeira, Tiago Aires notes that “six orienteers were present at Trail of the Kings, in Portalegre, but many others are in Athletics, Triathlon or simply moved away for other reasons. At a time when running is at its peak, associated to the open air and the wide natural spaces, what's happening in Orienteering is obviously our fault. We should, from my point of view, look at Trail as an opportunity to conquer new audiences. It's people that already are in our intervention area who only need to entrench the map reading as something cool, adventurous, challenging, epic, mental resilient, etc. ... all viral expressions”. Tiago Aires explains that “for getting the 'crest of the wave' it's necessary to be in social media networking sites, to have a 'show off' image. Many athletes from the Trail come to ask for information about Orienteering but, as soon as they check the Portuguese Orienteering Federation's site, the will disappears”. For Tiago Aires, “Orienteering has no fashion, style, color; for this reason, the sporting goods companies don't associate to us”. And he warns: “Not to accept these facts is to die alone.”

Many see Trail runners as traitors”

Keeping the criticism tone, Tiago Aires adds: “Whenever I have a chance, I speak of Orienteering, I'm recognized in the world of Trail Running as an orienteer but, unfortunately, Orienteering doesn't take any advantage of this and is increasingly closed in itself. Many see Trail runners as traitors, which is quite representative of the old-fashioned and unrealistic mentality that hovers over some of the decision makers of our sport”. And again: “This is undoubtedly a very relevant subject, but also, to the same extent, difficult to approach. You can always count on me to work for Orienteering, but not in this line, aimlessly, without purpose, without ambition. We've been sailing rudderlessly for too long”, he concludes.

It has never been a priority of the Federation to have a good image”

Miguel Reis e Silva is one of the “traitors” who Tiago Aires refers to, having been out of the team for the WOC 2014, because of being “interested in mountain races only” (see HERE the Interview to the Portuguese Orienteering Blog). But that is in the past and, for him, there's nothing that Trail Running has that Orienteering doesn't: “These are similar sports, which are practised in the same environment, with Orienteering having the additional challenge of navigation”, he says. Miguel Silva started practising Orienteering at the age of 10 and continues to practise it whenever he can, but ... “Orienteering requires intense navigational training and, living in Lisbon, this means traveling at least 100 km to get it done with quality”, he acknowledges. With Trail Running, everything is different and much simpler: “In the Trail, I just need to run, training specifically from the moment I leave home, which gives me a greater satisfaction. In addition, I don't need to travel constantly to practise on relevant terrains, which simplifies the articulation with the less free time I have now”. In brief, Miguel Silva continues to practice Orienteering, but “less competitively, for pure pleasure”, he says.

Addressing specially to the Orienteering crisis, Miguel Silva recalls that his generation came from School Sports. “It was a time when there was an investment from the Government in School Sports, with multiple camps and competitions”, remembers the athlete. The truth is that economic crisis led to a large disinvestment in School Sports and “the main source of athletes for the Federation has dried up and there isn't still a generation to replace us in the Elite level”, he adds. On the other hand, the athlete believes that “it has never been a priority of the Federation to have a good image and to know how to sell it, investing in a serious marketing strategy. This is fundamental, according to the rules of contemporary society and, unlike Trail, the Portuguese Orienteering Federation didn't follow them”, he says. With a long-term investment, Miguel Reis e Silva believes that it's possible to reverse things, because “there are lots of potential orienteers, being the Trail athletes, all without exception, in the first line”, he says.

The numbers are clearly insufficient to sustain a Federation with a minimum of quality”

The Portuguese Orienteering Blog also wanted to hear the thoughts of the events's organizers, that is, the clubs, after all the most penalized ones by the situation. Leonel Vieito is the President of Clube de Orientação do Centro, the club which organized the event on 14th and 15th January, and starts reminding that “for some years now I've been warning for this situation. According to my predictions, we would close the year of 2016 with an average participation of about 300 athletes per event which was not far from the reality. The numbers are clearly insufficient to sustain a Federation with a minimum of quality.”

Like other orienteering clubs in Portugal, Clube de Orientação do Centro has been organizing Trail Running events in recent years. Leonel Vieito doesn't find any contradiction in this “duality”, because “the public of Trail is completely different” and “a Trail Running event is a good source of income for the sustainability of the club”, remembering that “COC's annual budget exceeds 15,000 euros in expenses with Orienteering and it's not organizing one or two Orienteering events a year - not counting those we organize, knowing that will be detrimental, such as MTB Orienteering and Trail Orienteering - that you can sustain a club of this magnitude”.

We continue to neglect the formation and captivation of new people”

Considering that the crisis in Orienteering “has to do with countless small factors that, added to each other, are tiring people, taking them to give up”, Vieito notes that “this sport isn't easy and it takes time to take some pleasure of it. You don't become an Orienteering fan with a couple of participations and if, during this learning process, you're facing obstacles that makes you feel bad, you easily turn off”, he says. “Much more remains to be said, and this is really a subject that must be discussed by all stakeholders. But, from my point of view, we remain very involved with Elite and World teams and athletes and we continue to neglect the formation and captivation of new people to practise the sport”, he concludes.

Photo: Miro Cerqueira / Prozis

Joaquim Margarido

[The Portuguese Orienteering Blog tried to know the position on this matters of the President of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation, Marco Póvoa, but didn't receive any answer to the submitted questions so far]


  1. Very good post¡¡ Problems that do not attack, grow

  2. Me, as an elite athlete, have been in that situation too. I see two different points of views:
    -As an Elite athlete the person need some support that the federation can't give. So, that exist in Trail and doesn't in Orienteering. The organizers never make the elite athletes feel like "real elite athletes", so people don't look at them and the sponsors never come. We have done some Trail races with good results, and then you feel like a superstar: Interviews, big amount of money in price, sponsors, people asking, your image in all the social networks...
    -The second point of view is the organizers. I have not paid an entry for a Trail race in the last two years (even if I'm only a orienteer), and for example in a national league here in Spain I was not admited because I wanted to do the entry only 10h after the deadline was over.

    We need to make show. We need to sell the sport to the brands. We need to make marketing of the sport. Until that happens, the best orienteers from countries like Portugal or Spain will change to Trail only for one reason: Money!