“In it’s success lay the seeds of failure. With his emphasis on expanding the reach of his beloved activity and bringing it to the masses, Lebow undermined running as a sport. His focus on recruiting elite runners as a marketing tool diminished their value as athletes, while his stubborn refusal to pay them fairly for their efforts disrespected their achievements. As the event grew in size and revenue, the racing itself became an afterthought, with more attention paid to participating than winning. This disconnect-between finishing the race and racing the race-significantly affected the way people approached running and embraced the boom. Soon it would spell the sport’s doom.” – Cameron Stracher, King of the Road, 2013
The above paragraph from Cameron Stracher’s book ‘King of the Road’ struck and almighty chord with me, playing a tune I have long been humming in my own head. As a recreational activity running is booming. As a sport it is dying or at least meandering along – disrespected and destitute – getting a small brush-off every 4-years when the Olympics roll along. Cameron Stracher makes many salient points in his book. I will talk to them in turn before sharing my concerns and my suggestions on how to get out of this situation.
Background: running more than a sport, and always was
Running is different from most other sports: as a crucial part of natural human locomotion and one of our physical competitive advantages. Soccer, golf and GAA could disappear tomorrow and after a few generations, none would miss them. Running on the other hand remains essential for basic human survival and functioning even when not pursued as a sport. This perhaps goes some way to explaining while it is almost a ‘dumping ground’ for other sports in many respects.
Firstly, running serves as conditioning for the majority of other disciplines: roadwork for boxers, running practice for team sports and cross-training for swimmer and cyclists. Secondly, whenever a sport wants to raise funds, they put on a fun run to do so.
We must be doing something wrong in running because all the more affluent sports around us are raising extra money through our sport and we often (but not always) get little in return for our efforts. Running clubs do not organise charity soccer matches to raise fund for their juniors or some cause the running club is committed to. They don’t put on a golf tournament to raise money to send their junior athletes on a trip. And so on. But the opposite is often true.
The poor businessman on the block
What was more surprising was how little the major road races took advantage of these marketing opportunities. There was a big money to be made in corporate sponsorships, and yet running never profited in the way that golf and other less compelling sports did. Today, it costs around $2 million to sponsor the New York City Marathon, one of the biggest running events in the world, while even the smallest PGA golf tournament rakes in at least that amount from its title sponsor, and the PGA Tour earns about $1 billion a year. – Kings of the Road
I am not qualified to speak to the business craft of every major road race organiser in the world but everyone knows that just as athletics clubs may not be as good as their competitor sports in bringing money into their systems, so elite runners earn a fraction of what soccer players, basketball players, golfers, tennis players etc. will earn over a career.
Today, television rights rule the financial roost and running has had appallingly poor coverage over the last decades through that medium – few events are televised and those that do reach our screens, tend to be poorly produced, heavily edited and focused more on human interest than the sport itself with the notable exception of BBC’s Olympic and Championship coverage.
The glamour of golf
Reinforced by a belief that the sport is not compelling, this trend persists:
TV executives seem to think running is just about putting one foot in front of the other, which doesn’t make for dramatic television, even as they broadcast hours of soft-bellied men walking to retrieve a dimpled white ball as if it were the most exciting thing in the world. – King of the Road
When you truly understand the sport of running, there is plenty to enjoy throughout a road, track, hill or cross-country race and all that is needed is clever placement of cameras, influx of relevant statistics and information throughout and educated commentary (meaning not endless recitations of ‘this is the point where the athletes really feel the burn’ or ‘oh, the wheels have come off’). Instead running event coverage outside of the Olympics tends to be reduced to a montage of interviews with people dressed up as Superman or the Eiffel Tower, something sure to inspire the next generation to pick up the sport in favour of soccer.
This has led to a devaluation of the performances of our best athletes where hardly anyone in the country can mention the top national competitors nor can they understand how their performances relate internationally. On the other hand, they likely now who plays right back for Wrexham in the Fifth Tier of British football. They can recite the rugby rulebook by heart but are unable to distinguish whether running a 15 minute 5 km time is any better than a 4 hour marathon (it is).
Even among those running, too many believe their three weekly efforts equate to the discipline put in by someone running a sub-80 minutes or a sub-70 minute half-marathon simply out of ignorance of what it takes to achieve those types of marks. It is invariably written off as ‘talent’ by those who never tried running every day with focus and discipline for prolonged periods. The fundamental aspects of that must be present in a sporting culture such as a common language, understanding of basic training principles and literacy in paces and distances is often completely lacking. In large part because running is an activity we often take up on our lonesome at first. Only a few move on to pursue a formal education. This is the reverse of most other sports and physical educations which begin by teacher-led instruction in the basics before the ‘birds are allowed to fly free’.
Re-establishing the knowledge and respect around the sport of running and the top athletes within the sport, requires more than money. The legendary Frank Shorter, after having played a leading role in bringing down the hypocritical ‘amateur’ system – or ‘shamateur’ as labelled by ‘Boston’ Billy Rodgers, expressed new concerns in 1984:
“Running seems to be taking on more of the characteristics of professional sport, and that may not be in its best interest.” He pointed to the rise of agents as a factors in diminishing competition (because they pick and choose their clients’ races and avoid many head-to-head match-ups), and he foresaw a time when the best runners did not compete for the love of the sport, but the love of money. That time would sooner even than he predicted. – Kings of the Road
History essentially played a cruel trick on Frank Shorter. Once money began flowing into running it did not propel American and Western running forward but instead drew the East Africans onto the stage where they quickly usurped the dominance of traditional running nations and established a hegemony to which there now seems no end in sight. No more ‘Boston Billys’ and ‘Chairmen of the Boards’ dominate the international running scene and serve as role models for the next generations of aspiring European, American and Antipodean runners. If they want to back a winner, they must pick their favourite Kenyan or Ethiopian (some nations take this a step further and simply nationalise a top East African athlete but it is doubtful this has any positive effect on that country’s youth development and rather likely further detract from the attraction of the overall sport). The relatively low earnings in running compared to other sports and geopolitical realities fuel this trend:
Today the $50,000 offered for winning and elite marathon is about the same as atop baseball player makes each time he comes to bat. For an African kid raised on the veld, with running in his genes and his culture, the sum is enough to get him dreaming. For a talented American kid, it’s peanuts. Thus we still live in a society in which running is the default sport for kids who can’t play football, baseball, or basketball (or, increasingly, soccer or lacrosse) and the few fanatics who, through luck or good coaching, discover their muse. In a country increasingly obsessed with the almighty dollar, the latter group grows smaller and smaller. – Kings of the Road
So in running we have enough money to attract the East Africans to trounce us but so little that our sport is largely filled up with the rejects from other sports with a few exceptions. This is the picture we need to reverse. More money can play part of the solution in attracting more youngsters to take up the sport in the West (while money may be dirty, we do bring our kids up in a capitalist society telling them that cash is king – we cannot well expect them to suddenly drop this fundamental tenet the moment they lace up their running shoes).
More than money to make the world go around
But money does not CREATE champions:
Money was not the magic pill that would bring gold medals in the distance events. Shorter won his without a dime, and no American has won one since. The lack of money, in fact, made it possible to run without strictures, to focus on the sport itself without the distractions of business. Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar all ran at a time when the hunger for achievement coexisted with real hunger. The two complemented each other, perhaps more than money ever could. – Kings of the Road
The decline of Western running standards did not come from the influx of money, it merely accelerated it. ‘But we’re not in decline’, some will offer. Cameron Stracher, like I, disagree:
It’s been thirty years since Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar ruled the roads. Today, more people run than ever before. At last count, there were forty million in the United States alone. Yet rather than spawning a new generation of champions, as it might in another sport, this phenomenal growth as slowed the median pace in the typical race. The average time in the marathon, for example, has gone from 3:32:17 in 1980 to 4:16:34 in 2011. It has coincided with the decreasing competitiveness of US runners. – Kings of the Road
On not only the masses have contributed to this decline:
Even among the elite, there has been a significant decline in performance. Consider that in 1978, more than two thousand runners broke the magic three-hour barrier in the Boston Marathon. In 2012, with a field six times as large, only about five hundred runners broke three hours. At the Falmouth Road Race in 1982, a finishing time of thirty-six minutes was good enough for only eighty-ninth place. But in 2012, the same time would have earned ah runner thirty-second place. Meanwhile, fewer than one-third of the men who qualified for the US Olympic marathon trials in 2012 would have met the qualifying time in 1984. At the 2000 Olympics, only one American met the Olympic standard, and he finished sixty-ninth. The story is the same at nearly every event along the distance ladder. With the exception of a few standouts, US runners cannot match the times of their earlier progenitors and stand little chance on the international circuit. – Kings of the Road
The famous Falmouth road race describes the change in the running world in a microcosm:
Masya’s win was the second victory by an African there in a string that, since 1991, reads like this: Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Morocco, Morocco, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kenya.Indeed, since Salazar’s victories in 1982, only one American man has won Falmouth <sic> and no American-born man has won a marathon in New York City, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles, or any other major distance race. No American-born male distance runner has been ranked first in any event, and none has taken home an Olympic gold medal. – Kings of the Road
I have a few more graphics I often use to illustrate this which I’ll go through in my long-planned article the ‘Decline of the West’. But I began this article with a simpler question than ‘why we are worse’: did the Running Boom kill the sport of running and through that our ability to compete internationally with the East Africans and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese.
In his epilogue in ‘Kings of the Road’, Stracher examines the reasons behind our ‘fall from grace’:
In general there has been a movement away from running as a sport where people run fast, to running as an activity done for fitness or social purposes. For this we can blame, in part, the people who cultivated the first running boom: the men whose enthusiasm for the sport drove millions to the roads. In popularizing running, they inadvertently dumbed it down, celebrating the participant over the winner.
The celebration of participation over winning stands has always seemed to me the saddest aspect of our modern running culture leading to an ignorance of the mechanisms of the sport and disrespect for the efforts of the top competitors.
The elite runners drew the masses to the roads, but once they were there, the elites were forgotten. Today it is common for finishers in a major race not to know – and not to care – who won. What counts is the personal narrative of adversity and achievement. There are no heroes, there are only goody bags and fancy flavoured water.
The dominance of the personal narrative above all else goes far beyond running, however. Yuval Noah Harari explains brilliantly in his newest book (Homo Deus) how the last century and a half has been dominated by the religion of Humanism which is slowly but surely replacing all other earlier religions and belief systems. Humanism* measures everything we do by ‘how the individual feels’. If something ‘feels right’ then it is right or to quote Harari:
While theists worship God. Humanists worship humans. <sic> Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo Sapiens. – Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari
* In fact, humanism is currently being replaced by a worship of information flow wherein experiences do not matter in themselves but only matter as much as they impact on the flow of information between humans through our modern technologies in particular. I’ll explore the implications of this in future articles.
Inevitably a world dominated by a humanist world view and rampant neo-liberal individualistic philosophies of society building will honour the individual’s narrative over the collective narrative of the sport (liberal humanism defeated the competing doctrine of evolutionary humanism and social humanism during the 20th century). What does it matter that the sport declines of the top runners are faster as long as I improve my PB by 2 minutes? That is all that matters and our media delivers what it’s customers want:
This shift is reflected in the media, which used to cover running as a sport but now treats it as a lifestyle event. Even publications dedicated to running have changed their emphasis from reporting on racing to providing tips on diet and fitness. Gone are the days when Joe Henderson, Derek Clayton, Kenny Moore, and Amby Burfoot – competitive runners all – wrote about who won, who lost, and how to get faster. Now we have articles about how to get six-pack abs and which exotic location to choose for a running vacation. No doubt the editors know their audience, but the audience is also influenced by the editors. – Kings of the Road
Anyone who reads running publications (I have largely stopped) will have noticed this trend. Instead of educating our target market, we dumb information down to what we think their level should be. The Running Times – whose editor Jonathan Berkely I had the pleasure to meet – was one of the last bastions of serious running reporting. Unsurprisingly, the magazine is no longer published.
Stracher believes this has also led the public to embrace trends that are antithetical to speed:
Meanwhile, ‘penguins’ – runners so slow they waddle when they walk – celebrate finishing as if it were a victory. Finally, we have the New Age gurus such as Jeff Galloway – a former elite athlete who should know better -teaching that walking in the middle of a race will make runners faster. Their enthusiasm is admirable, but it won’t bring home any medals. – Kings of the Road
It is refreshing to read writing of such candour. Those who care nothing for medals or the performance of our athletes will not care for a single word in this post. But for those among us who would like to restore meaningful competition to the world stage between East Africa and the rest of the world, it must serve as a slap across the face and a wake-up call to look at our running culture and begin to counter the ideas promulgated at the birth of the boom in the late seventies and early eighties.
All about culture
We can change this story if we can change the culture and we do not need to continue our quest for the ‘magical ingredient’ that makes Kenyans so superior:
Although the debate continues to rage over what makes African distance runners so good, there are no genetic or racial mysteries here. Instead, the answer is the same across continents: a group of like-minded athletes bound together in a culture that fosters their sport. – Kings of the Road
In other words: success depends on the quality of our running culture. Ours is demonstrably in decline. But it’s a positive message: its easier to change culture than to change genes. If the power was in my hands alone I would start here:
- Stop celebrating participation at the expense of competing and winning. Participation can be lauded but not at the extreme level it currently is
- Better educated coaches and more educational articles for beginners that lead beginners towards viewing running as a sport instead of a ‘sacrifice’ or simply a hobby
- More coverage of running as a sport as apart from a circus on TV, in magazines and other media
- Push back the marathon fanaticism and encourage beginners to learn the trade on shorter distances instead of throwing them into the marathon at a time where they can barely get through it at a decent speed