Toni revis has hit the nail on the head so many times in his recent blog post that I won’t post it here in its entirety (just go read it), but simply add a bit more to the pot.
Except for strong fields at their San Diego home marathon, the Carlsbad 5000 up the coast, and the RnR Philadelphia Half Marathon, CGI’s working model pays one marquee athlete (like American Olympic medalists Shalane Flanagan in the recent Rock `n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon, or Meb Keflizighi at their Los Angeles and San Jose half-marathons) a healthy appearance fee to run a solo effort without the inconvenience of competition.
Taking on the Competitor Group for its business policies is pretty easy: we assume that they’re putting on a race, and they are, but not an elite race. They pay to have one show pony and then the rest of us poor slobs get to show up and race each other. So what’s the problem?
The problem is the sport of running versus the sport of elite running, of world class and Olympic running. As your average master’s competitor, I will have no problem finding lots of age group competition at pretty much any race I go to. It’ll be a dog fight most of the time.
Yet, it is elite racing at the highest level that interests some of us, even though recent demographics will show that there aren’t that many of us out there. What Toni is talking about is seeing the complete ladder, from jogger to NCAA athlete, to USA competitor, to Olympian. Its not just the elite runners and the rest of the shlubs below (quite a few rungs missing on the ladder there), it’s the whole numbers game that makes the ladder work.
If you have 1,000 high school runners, you likely have 100 college runners, and maybe 1 who will go on to become elite. Make that number 10,000 in high school and you’ve got an even greater chance to have more elite runners. So, yes, it is disturbing when a fairly elite college athlete like Lukas Verzbicas ditches Oregon because he looks about two or three rungs up and realizes, “I don’t think that I’ll ever get there.”
You only get so many of those athletes.
The IAAF and the IOC only have themselves to blame in a lot of ways. They have given away all the marketing that might have given them new generations of runners, mostly black Africans, that could have replaced Geb and Tergat in the minds and hearts of runners the world over. They have let the TV stations and sponsors take away the distance races because it was easy to concentrate on the sprints and the crowd-pleasing showboating and now they’re left without any distance runners who can dream of taking on the Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance in XC, nor any who have the chance to queue up in a global 10,000 and go after Bekele. Ritzenhein tracking him down in 2009 in his Paris 5K was certainly a rare event.
So why don’t you have a new Geb and Tergat? Because, just like baseball’s insane steroid fueled race to get new home runs, the idiotic obsession on times and times alone has taken all of the great racing out of the sport. And without great competition, there goes the sport.
It really isn’t hard to make the case. People remember Coe and Ovett trading the mile and 1500 records but none of them can remember the time. They remember Geb and Tergat racing each other down to the inch in the Sydney Games because it was played over and over again. For every one that wants a Lasse Viren/Michael Jordan/Pete Sampras you have to remember that it was their greatness being defined by great competition that makes us remember them.
The oddities in the drug testing (or lack of testing thereof), the arcane nature of the sports governing bodies (Paula Radcliffe’s off and on world record), and NBC’s desire to Up Close and Personal athletes, wringing every ounce of tragedy out of their backstory, while not televising the actual competition, have all shifted the spotlight away from what used to be memorable sporting competitions. After all, what we remember in sports are the match-ups, the great battles, the edge of your seat moments in sports.
For the elite runners community to change this is to have to learn what the rest of the world has learned, from Tennis to Futbol to Rugby to Baseball: how you market the sport matters. Matters a lot. The answer is not to start cutting events but to make the events better competitions. The cancellation of World XC to an every other year event is disturbing because it represents yet another loss for the world’s runners to stay in the limelight. Or to see the race live on TV in HD and decide that next year they want to be running over hill and through mud and try to chase down a leader. We know from the numbers game that if we don’t have youngsters who are inspired to join the chase then there is no chance to ever have another Ryan Hall pushing the leaders at mile 24 of the London Marathon.
Peter Vigneron of Outside Magazine commented on Toni’s blog post –
Reavis sees competitive running as a commodity. Or he must, because that is the only metric by which it is not wildly successful. Otherwise, things are humming along nicely: international competitive running has never been more competitive, American competitive distance running has never been more competitive, and more people are running and entering races in the United States than ever before.And while I agree with Peter that American running is more competitive than ever in the last decade than since the 1970’s, a huge achievement given the black pit that was the ‘90’s, I disagree that distance running is wildly successful. There are a dearth of races for the almost world class, there is the distressing lack of world cross country for the national class athlete to test himself/herself in. There is a distressing lack of the rest of the world in the lead pack of the Olympic Marathon. My ideal? The lead pack of the Athens Olympic Marathon (and I’m doing this from memory here): an Italian, an American, South African, Kenyan, Brasilian, Ethiopian & Englishman. That is my successful metric for international distance running.