The focus of the British press before, during and after last Sunday’s 33rd Virgin London Marathon was on local Olympic champion Mo Farah’s half-way-only test run for next year’s full distance debut. Even Tsegay Kebede’s final kilometer win over a faltering Emmanuel Mutai was couched in the context Farah ’s first half presence.
Was this what race officials hoped when they signed Farah after recruiting “the greatest marathon field in history”? Or was it simply an indication that today’s version of such a field is incapable of holding public attention on its own?
Whichever, when a local show pony like Mo Farah who had no intention of completing the race dominates race news coverage, which he did, it’s a clear indication that running has a problem that fast times alone cannot solve. What London 2013 revealed was the continuing lack of connection between an audience and the current crop of the world’s top distance runners. And one wonders whether the sport either notices or cares.
Sunday’s unfortunate collision between wheelchair world record holder Josh Cassidy of Canada and Ethiopia’s Women’s Olympic Marathon champion Tiki Gelana at a 15K aid station, while regrettable, is a simple enough problem to correct. Just start the wheelchairs ahead of the runners like every other marathon in the world does. How to correct the lack of rooting interest in the sport of marathon in general, however, is quite another issue, and one that Mo Farah can only do so much to improve when he laces up for real in London 2014. Maybe he can convince his training mate and fellow Olympic track medalist Galen Rupp of the United States to join him against the big cats from East Africa, because unless we find a way to broaden fan interest beyond the Horn of Africa, this sport will continue to slide toward Mo Farah-like gimmicks and the increasing emphasis on the dog-and-pony show behind.
I can hear the howls already. But the East Africans are not the culprits, though they are the public face, and thus bear a modicum of responsibility. It’s more the sport’s overseers who must shoulder responsibility by first acknowledging the problem, then addressing it.
Even the athlete managers, who one would assume would be interested in raising the public profile of their clients, won’t do anything until the events themselves apply pressure by declaring media fitness as necessary as race fitness. But to date they’ve shown no inclination in that direction whatsoever.
It’s been 26 years since Ibrahim Hussein became the first Kenyan champion of the New York City Marathon. And as anyone who even modestly follows the sport can tell you, the ensuing generation has hailed an onslaught unmatched in any other sport in world history.
But excellence isn’t the issue here. Fan interest is. Africans have so dominated the sport over the last two decades, yet have added so little beyond race day speed that, regardless of their times, almost nobody knows or cares who wins even the biggest races anymore.
Yes, of course, there have been exceptions like Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Paul Tergat of Kenya, the great champions of the 1990s and early 2000s who teamed with Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi in London 2002 to produce a three-star showdown that remains the most compelling in London history. In that race Khannouchi’s world record time was a product of the competition, as it should be, rather than the goal of the enterprise. Who would win was the paramount issue. The time, while important, was secondary.
But none among today’s A-list runners shines with anything near the same brilliance as those exceptional personalites. Thus, time has become the focus. What’s more, today’s champions rise and fall with such Wac-A-Mole rapidity that there is no such thing as a career anymore. Instead anonymous interchangeable parts come and go, making it impossible to generate public interest or develop supporting skill sets to underpin the speed.
I recall a young Ethiopian runner being invited to the Los Angeles Marathon several years ago. I forget her name, but that’s not important (or maybe it’s telling). Anyway, at the pre-race press conference at Dodger Stadium not only could she not speak to the press, she couldn’t even lift her chin off her chest to look at us. Now, we might not have been the most attractive lot, granted, but the press represents the public, the public represents the sponsors, and sponsors represent the money. If you want to run for just a trophy, fine, hide, demur, deflect, avoid. But if you want to take home money, then running from point A to point B should only part of your job. But to date that aspect of the trade has never been considered of primary concern.
As I told L.A. recruiter Bill Orr, “Bill, how can you invite a lady like this? She may be an elite athlete, but she’s not a professional athlete. There’s a difference. What if she wins the race? It’d be a disaster.”
Yet more times than not, that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Even at last Sunday’s post-race media gathering in London, when the top three athletes were presented on stage many of the reporters paid no attention to the barely audible non-responses. In partial jest I suggested that the guy conducting the interviews should be wearing a dental smock, because trying to extract answers was akin to pulling teeth.
I can hear the charges already. But kids, I’m a lifelong fan; I actually care. These athletes are friends of mine. I understand the cultures from which they hail. I know it isn’t easy to get up in front of a crowd and articulate your experiences in what is essentially a second or third language. I’ve traveled to east Africa many times and maintain close contact with both Kenyan and Ethiopian runners alike. I’m not here just to point fingers, but to suggest the need to address the issue, and begin to treat this sport as if it were truly professional. Because if we continue in this vein, we’re going to kill the golden goose, which is the direction things are headed.
I spoke with one European marathon director last weekend in London who told me pointedly, “this story is going to end; running fast alone is not enough. We are in discussions right now asking if this is how we want to continue, with an emphasis on elites. Our ambition is be among the top ten marathons in the world, but we are trying to find a solution to make the sport more attractive, and depend less on finishing times. The question isn’t ‘who won?’, but ‘what time?’ We are trying to figure how we can stand out from the rest, and right now we know we are on a dead-end road.”
And this event has one of the fastest courses in the world, and a sub-2:06 winning time with major names as past champions. But they are asking, ‘what will bring in new fans and sponsors?’, and fast times are no longer the answer.
“There needs to be passion,” said the director. “People are fans of teams in other sports as well as individual athletes. But even if we brought Mo Farah to our city, nobody would know who he is. People only know Usain Bolt.”
This is not the first time this subject has been broached, but in this politically correct world of ours it is always a touchy issue, misread as racist or anti-African. But that just skirts the issue. Besides, I won’t accept such a label. It is a problem the athletes, their managers and the events dare not shy away from. We already have seen the consequences of this generational trend as road races continue to become more and more a series of clown shows and Jerry Lewis-like charity fund-raisers rather than sporting events.
When I covered the Boston Marathon for WHDH-TV years ago, my anchorman John Dennis, now the #1 morning sports radio host in Boston on WEEI-AM’s Dennis & Callahan Show, used to operate a consulting business called MediaWise. Dino coached athletes on the four Boston pro sports team on how to deal with the media. That’s media lessons to predominantly American athletes on how to conduct interviews and improve their media skills.
It’s long past time for running to wise up, too, to take the advanced running talent that is undeniable and laudable, and form it into a more compelling media presentation. Top runners can’t afford to short-change either distance or speed training. Why shouldn’t they be expected to develop the rest of their professional duties with equal attention? Either that or the dog and pony show will continue to overwhelm what was once a robust sport with a wide and varied fan base. Bow-wow.