People watch foot races for the same reasons they watch other sports: to root for the home team, see how the drama plays out (especially if the stakes are high), and to be inspired by those who do it exceedingly well. At times, like at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, it is especially riveting when both hearts and minds become entwined in the outcome. Caring who wins matters.
But over the last generation we have witnessed what was once a robust gathering of eagles from all parts of the globe be winnowed to a very small aerie in East Africa. In that sense, we don’t have to wait and see who is going to win a major marathon or road race anymore, or how; we know before the starter’s horn ever sounds what will happen. And when all (or vast majority) of the winners from the same region express the same reluctance to fill the spotlight from a marketing or media standpoint — in order to overcome the public’s inability to differentiate one from the other while helping generate sponsor interest — we see the potential end-game, as with CGI’s elimination of their entire North American elite athlete budget, reportedly $1 million U.S.
Yet in the wake of that announcement, even as the chat rooms and social media have lit up with either support for or condemnation of CGI, the only two athletes who have spoken out on the issue publicly that I’ve seen have been Josh Cox and today Ryan Vail of the U.S. Perhaps I have missed others, but not one word has emerged from any of the world’s greatest runners, or their representatives. Nothing. And yet the CGI decision affects them more than anyone. Perhaps there is a fear of speaking out, but even in that light do we wonder why CGI makes this kind of call?!
A couple of years ago Los Angeles Marathon elite athlete coordinator Bill Orr invited a young Ethiopian woman to the race. She was probably away from home for the first time, and so overwhelmed by the experience not only couldn’t talk to the press at the Friday press conference, she couldn’t even look up at them.
Now, having been to Ethiopia several times, I was aware that in her culture keeping your eyes lowered before an elder is a sign of respect. But in the USA it comes across as deer-in-the-headlights. I asked Bill Orr why this runner had been invited, or why she hadn’t been schooled on the responsibilities that go along with an elite invitation to a major U.S. marathon? What if she won the race? It would have been a disaster.
“She may well be an elite athlete,” I said, “but she isn’t a professional athlete. There’s more to the job than running fast.”
But there’s also more to recruiting a field than signing an athlete and expecting him/her to fully understand the duties expected of them other than racing. If such duties aren’t spelled out, or if media training isn’t provided, how much should we blame a young athlete coming from a rural setting halfway around the world? But for whatever reason, the vast majority of events that still invite top athletes have no such expectation, written policy or media support.
As we enter the 2013 fall road racing season, the sport is still coming to grips with the Competitor Group Inc. decision to immediately eliminate their entire North American elite athlete budget. But do we call out CGI — some talk about boycotts — or do we move forward, expending energy in a positive direction?
Yes, CGI is the largest purveyor of races in the nation, and yes, they purchased Elite Racing and the legacy of competitive excellence that went with it. But how far does that responsibility go if the people who benefit the most from the elite athlete program won’t lift a finger to train anything beyond their cardio-vascular systems and legs? Or, more tellingly, impress upon their more worldly representatives, who have been milking the golden goose for decades, to upgrade their products to meet modern standards?
The fact that not one truly elite athlete has made a comment on an issue that is the talk of the sport is the kind of silence that just reinforces CGI’s decision to drop their support in the first place. Without a voice, legs alone won’t do.