In our center-right, celebrity-saturated society it is all but apostacy to say, as Yale University Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom did in a C-SPAN interview in 2000, “The country was almost destroyed by Ronald Reagan, that charming, smiling fellow. He assured us we could all emancipate ourselves from our selfishness, which we proceeded to do on a national scale.”
Bloom’s biting assessment arrived on the heels of the dot-com bubble, but a full eight years before the housing bubble burst, a collapse that plummeted the country into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Today, we are still on the long climb back to full recovery, if such a thing even exists.
In our modest running world a similar emancipation has taken place. Over the last generation running has witnessed its emancipation from effort, better known as the “Everyone’s a Winner” phase of the second running boom. Runner’s World’s Mark Remy wrote about it this past January – OK, Time to Retire the Finisher’s Medal, and just yesterday the Wall Street Journal took up the issue – A lack of competitiveness in younger runners is turning some races into parades.
In June 1982 the late president of the New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon Fred Lebow told me, “You talk of a running boom, but we haven’t seen a boom yet. This has only been a boom-let. The one area that is completely behind the times is women running. Most races see 15-25% women, yet the population is over 50% women.”
As with most things, Lebow was a seer. Today, mass marathons in the U.S. are generally over 50% women with some tilting over 60%. Even registration for next April’s Boston Marathon, the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, has skewed heavily female. Much of that is the consequence of last year’s tragic bombings at the Boston finish line, but some of it is Lebow’s prophecy coming true.
Though the 2014 Boston Marathon registration will skew slower and more female than usual with addition of the 4700 entrants from 2013, predominantly women, who were unable to complete the distance due to the finish line bombings, it is still a long way from 1979 when only 520 women entered Boston compared to 7357 men.
WHEN RACING MEANT PUSHNG THE LIMITS
Throughout the first running boom excellence held sway as Frank Shorter’s gold medal performance at the 1972 Munich Olympic Marathon inspired his fellow Baby Boomers to take up the sport. As such, they saw improvement as the purpose of racing. Similarly, the reason the Boston Marathon holds such an elevated position in the sport is due not just to its 117 year history, but to its rigid qualifying standards, making it the People’s Olympics, if you will.
But after qualifying standards peaked in the early 1980s at sub-2:50 for open division entry, the BAA began lowering standards to increase field size before tightening all age qualifying standards by 5:00 last year. Still, the current standards tilt toward easier female entry, especially at the younger end of the age spectrum.
With the advent of the first Rock `n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, we began to see the Lebow-anticipated devolution toward the participation-based completion model. Where at one time every participant would receive a tee shirt, soon, a bright, shiny medal was hung around the neck of every finisher regardless of the quality of their effort. Accordingly, we have seen the gap between elite and also-ran grow to a black-hole depth as the linking ground of effort has been allowed to go fallow. By the way, this is not to confuse hard effort at a slower pace with an easy effort at a faster pace. Speed itself is not the mark of effort.
FESTIVALS NOT SPORTING EVENTS
In a recent phone conversation, CGI CEO Scott Dickey told me: “This (modern running movement) has been a fairly consistent textbook case of the sophisticated building of a hobby to a sport to a business, with negatives and positives, for sure. But private equity brings influence, impact, and stature to the sport.”
Perhaps it brings those things to the activity, Scott, but quite evidently it doesn’t bring it to the sport, or else CGI wouldn’t have pulled away from the competitive side of the equation.
“There has been a festival-ization of sport where mass participation is just as important as sport,” continued Dickey, “where TV and sponsors get a return on their investment. But we’re not talking to Tony Romo on the field, but to the 70,000 Dallas Cowboy fans in the stands. But our fans are not in the stands, and that’s what makes running unique. It has been very difficult to scale elite competitions, and sponsors don’t care about elite runners. Yet we have been demonized for our decision while we have spent millions, and still cover the elites on Competitor.com, which has not been taken into consideration.”
But one reason sponsors don’t care about elite runners is because CGI never made a concerted effort to create a viable elite program. Since buying Elite Racing in December 2007 CGI continued building and branding its events (Rock `n` Roll), but never branded its competitions. Every RnR race was one-and-done, though they did make a late, but now-cancelled effort to institute a Half Marathon Grand Prix this past March.
But to be fair, CGI never received assistance from the cadre of elite athletes or their agents to improve the scalability of elite competition, nor did the hundreds of long-standing independent, non-aligned events in the industry, which had similarly allowed the competitive, elite racing model to go stale in the face of the more lucrative participation model, work to improve or upgrade that elite model. And to call USATF, the governing body tasked with promoting the sport at the grass roots level, an absentee landlord when it came to road racing would be to denigrate all such landlords. Though USATF has in recent years belatedly gotten into the game, this year adding its first, wholly-owned road race property, .US National Road Racing Championships. But is that effort too little, too late?
NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME
Personally, I do not see the give-and-take that has roiled the sport over the last several weeks as a zero-sum game where one side loses and the other wins. It should be win-win. I make the point that when there was interest in the running game, as when the New York City Marathon was on ABC network TV for 13 years until 1993, when the Chicago Marathon was covered live on CBS network, when the best runners in the world were college graduates from America and Europe, and when the foreign runners who did come to our shores came from all parts of the globe, giving an international flavor to the proceedings, we had the base upon which to build a viable sporting model.
But when the original generation of running stars retired, and race directors benignly allowed an endless parade of anonymous, interchangeable East Africans who were neither required, nor chose to improve their market viability, the sport sagged into a state of disinterest over the course of 20 years. Out of that neglect grew ‘everyone is a winner’, the slew of new non-competitive “fun-run” events, and finally Competitor Group’s fateful decision to disengage from elite-oriented competition altogether.
Which leaves us where? To do what? With whom? Toward what end?
It is evident that the major stakeholders in the sport focused their attentions on their individual principalities, while allowing the underlying infrastructure of the sport to deteriorate. All of that said, today’s world is more complicated than when the Baby Boom generation was emerging into its adult years and began the first running boom.
Except for the very top of the economic food chain, today’s Americans are being squeezed tighter than ever, must compete harder in their everyday lives, have less support from an economy that can’t quite find its way over the hump, and thus have less freedom to explore what is seen as an esoteric version of competition, foot racing over distance.
It’s like people didn’t need a metaphor for overcoming odds via last year’s ING New York City Marathon while they were still up to their eyeballs overcoming Hurricane Sandy. So, too, are today’s runners overcoming odds on a daily basis in much more highly competitive world, and thus have chosen running as a decompression chamber in which to find the release from the pressures of parenting and work. When life, itself, is overly competitive you don’t necessarily want to add competitive running to the mix — though, indeed, some do. Instead, you want to run away and escape it. That’s why the front of the pack doesn’t connect with the back. They are involved in radically different activities.
Fact is, not everyone is a winner, but maybe running for a shiny medal and lower blood pressure might be the antidote that makes that venomous reality just a little less toxic. Perhaps, even something to smile about.