Clare  Hawthorne

In August of this year, the International Orienteering Federation (IOF) and Orienteering Australia submitted an expression of interest for the inclusion of orienteering in the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games programme. 

Now that the full program has been announced - which, unfortunately, does not include orienteering - we have the chance to reflect on our bid and the future direction of our sport, particularly at the elite level.

Orienteering originated in Sweden in the late 1900s as a military training exercise. 

Since then, it has spread all over the world, morphing into a competitive sport with four main formats - sprint, middle distance, long distance and relay. 

Mountain bike orienteering and ski orienteering are practiced as separate disciplines; while a para-sport version - trail orienteering - is centred around map reading in a competitive environment, where speed over the ground is not a factor.  

Orienteering Australia's Commonwealth Games bid focused on sprint orienteering. 

This is a relatively new format featuring exciting high-speed racing through urban areas such as university campuses, complex parkland or 'old-town' city centres. 

Sprint orienteering has three main sub-formats - an individual sprint in a time trial format, a knock-out sprint with head-to-head racing, and a mixed relay (a four-person team with two men and two women).

Sprint orienteering is particularly appealing for spectators. 

As tracking technology has evolved, so too has the potential for an immersive, multi-media experience.

Orienteering Australia is looking to host another IOC-sanctioned event such as a World Cup or Junior World Championships ©Getty Images
Orienteering Australia is looking to host another IOC-sanctioned event such as a World Cup or Junior World Championships ©Getty Images

GPS tracking allows viewers to follow the progress of athletes in real time - experiencing the hesitations, errors and questionable decisions as they happen. 

Combine this with live-action footage, interactive maps and motion-graphics, and you have the perfect spectator sport for 'backseat navigators' - who of course would never make the same mistakes as the hapless competitors.

Commonwealth athletes - particularly from Australia, New Zealand and Britain - have achieved some outstanding results in sprint orienteering in recent years, with wins and podium finishes in IOF World Championships, Junior World Championships, and World Cups. 

The challenge now is to build on these results and leverage them to raise the sport's profile, attract sponsorship and broaden our participation base.

As with many non-Olympic and non-Commonwealth Games sports, our performance cycles at the elite level are based around our world championships. 

As of 2022, these championships alternate between sprint orienteering and forest orienteering on a biennial basis. 

The next sprint World Orienteering Championships will be held in Edinburgh in July 2024. 

Given Britain's exceptional results at the recent sprint World Championships in Denmark - one gold, two silvers and a bronze medal - Team GB will be the ones to beat in their home terrain.

One of the difficulties that Australian elite orienteers face is that most international competitions take place in Europe. 

But despite our relative remoteness, Australia has hosted almost a dozen IOF championship events, including a World Championships in Bendigo, Victoria; a Junior World Championships in Dubbo, NSW; and many World Cups and World Masters' competitions. 

These events have attracted thousands of competitors from around the world. 

Looking to the future, Orienteering Australia will now focus on hosting another IOC-sanctioned event such as a World Cup or Junior World Championships…perhaps even another World Championships in regional Victoria.

Orienteering was left out of the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games programme ©Getty Images
Orienteering was left out of the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games programme ©Getty Images

At the performance level, we expect to see increasing specialisation within the sprint and forest orienteering formats. 

Although sprint orienteering has in some ways become the glamour event, forest orienteering remains the most popular at a grass-roots level. 

Balancing the competing demands of elite athletes with different areas of focus is likely to be an ongoing issue as we adjust to the new World Championships formats.

While it was disappointing to miss out on the Commonwealth Games, we acknowledge that many other worthy sports likewise didn’t make the cut. 

It’s encouraging to see other adventure sports such as cross-country mountain biking and coastal rowing get the recognition they deserve. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a significant cross-over between orienteering and other adventure and endurance sports, such as surf lifesaving, mountain biking, triathlon, multisport and trail running. 

We all face similar challenges: growing our participation base, attracting and retaining volunteers who keep the sport going at all levels, and supporting our elite athletes to be the best they possibly can be, despite limited resources.

At the same time, it can be disheartening to see well-resourced sports seemingly rewarded with even more recognition and publicity. 

But it’s important to acknowledge that, whatever the sport, every aspiring champion must make many sacrifices to reach his or her goal - be that an Olympic or Commonwealth Games team, a World Championships final, or a lucrative professional career.

In a certain sense, we don’t choose our sports - our sports choose us, based on our physical attributes and abilities, the opportunities we’re given and our genuine enjoyment of the activity. 

Orienteering Australia is focused on increasing opportunities and reducing the barriers to participation, so that we can share the many physical and mental benefits we derive from our sport as widely as possible. 

We're grateful that we had the opportunity to showcase orienteering with our Commonwealth Games bid, and we congratulate all the other sports that will be participating in Victoria in 2026.