BOSTON REMEMBERS

Boston's Old South Church

Boston’s Old South Church

The bell of Boston’s Old South Church tolled mournfully today at exactly 2:49 p.m. , commemorating the exact time one year ago that the first of two bombs went off at the Boylston Street finish of the Boston Marathon. As thousands gathered for what was billed as a Tribute, pewter-gray skies opened in memory of the four dead and hundreds injured.  Even so, a continuing sense of recovery suffused the crowd lining the roadway, some who had returned for the first time since April 15, 2013.

It was a somber day of remembrance coming just six days before the 118th running of the grand old race. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, along with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and ex-mayor Tom Menino gave moving addresses, along with BAA executive race director Tom Grilk and four of the recovering victims of the bombing. Continue reading

NUMBERING UP BEKELE’S MARATHON DEBUT

2014 Paris Marathon champion Keninisa Bekele

2014 Paris Marathon champion Keninisa Bekele

After 31 year-old track and cross country champion Keninisa Bekele’s superb marathon debut in Paris today, 2:05:03 — course record, sixth fastest debut in history, fastest first-time marathon ever by a man over 30 — I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back.  After all, records are the lattice upon which the sport of athletics grow, while giving fans a chance to compare and contrast athletes of different eras in much the same way baseball fans compare stats across time (at least until the steroid era kind of ruined that).

Before we glance back, however, let us look into the very near future as we await another highly anticipated debut, that of England’s own double Olympic track champion Mo Farah.   Also 31,, the 2012 5000 & 10,000m Olympic gold medalist will hope to thrill the home crowd at the Virgin Money London Marathon. And he will know how high the Bekele standard has been set.   But while Paris was a showcase for Bekele with a very good, but not great field, and his manager Jos Hermens riding alongside on a motorbike, Mo will have to negotiate a field of steely-eyed killers, record holders, and Olympic medalists in London.

So while Keninisa was able to pull free of his competition after 25k on his way to victory in Paris, one can expect Mo to be challenged much later into London’s 42 kilometer soiree next Sunday. At the same time, London is historically a faster layout than Paris, so it will be difficult to make a direct apples-to-apples comparison between the two.  But why should that stop us from having some fun with numbers?

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TENNIS MODEL

ATP_World_Tour LogoI received numerous responses to my last blog post — UNTYING THE USATF GORDIAN KNOT — about the current state of the sport, its governance, and the future of the fledgling athletes’ union, the Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA).  One of the over-arching themes that emerged was the need for athletes to speak with one voice because so much of what they want for their future is still tied into the issue of governance.  After all, goes the argument, it is the elected officials of the national governing body (NGB) that make and enforce the rules of competition, head up relevant sport committees, and appoint officials to make the on-site rulings.  Individually, athletes simply don’t have the standing to help decide such issues, while collectively they would.

While that argument is absolutely true, it is only true as pertains USATF-sanctioned  events and championships.  Just as in tennis, golf, basketball, you name it, the job of  developing a sport, of contesting its national championships, and then selecting its Olympic or World Championship teams, is not one and the same as staging and presenting a professional version of that sport for its own sake.

ITF LogoTennis is governed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and its 210-member national tennis associations.  They sanction the four Grand Slam events, and operate three major international team competitions,  notably the Davis Cup.  But it is the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tours that control most other high-level professional tournaments.  This is the organizational hierarchy athletics and road racing don’t have, but are in need of.

In the public eye, as we’ve seen, there is no clear line between amateur and pro track and road running.  People still wonder how you can take prize money and still compete in the Olympic Games. And the quote from George Perry of the Austin TC that attendees of the IEG Sponsorship Conference had “no idea there was such a thing as pro track in the US”, stands as an indictment to us all.

My point is that until we have a fully professional model that is  readily distinguishable from the developmental aspect of track & field, we will continue to be unable to effectively explicate the sport to the public, or market it to its full advantage. But to create that distinction, we must, necessarily, move away from the single organizing umbrella model, while retaining and supporting the important and necessary functions required of the national governing bodies.

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UNTYING THE USATF GORDIAN KNOT

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety

With the end of the Cold War reawakening centuries old ethnic animus, and modernity exerting increasing pressure on limited resources, the reordering of the world continues along a rancorous course.  Whether we see it expressed in separatist referenda in Catalonia, Venice and Scotland, or via the ongoing crisis in Crimea, nationalist movements are on the rise as peoples affiliated culturally and linguistically seek independence from the larger nations that contain them.

For much the same reason the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 broke up the old Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)  — which had previously regulated all amateur sports across the board — and provided for national governing bodies for each Olympic sport individually.  In that restructuring, track and field, race walking and long distance running were lumped together under the same umbrella called The Athletics Congress (TAC), today known as USA Track & Field (USATF).

But just as nations undergo constant shifts in populations and affiliations, so has the relative scope of USATF’s component parts undergone fundamental change in the last three-plus decades.  Over that time road racing’s mature numbers have grown to dwarf those of track and race walking, such that road racing has become to track & field what black South Africa had traditionally been to white South Africa during the days of apartheid, a population majority holding a minority political base.

Days of yore

Days of yore

Part of this imbalance stems from the fact that road running was in its infancy when the AAU was broken up.  But today, over 30 million Americans are self-professed runners, 15.5 million of whom actively participate in road racing, more than a half-million in marathons alone. Yet, as of December 2013, USATF had a membership of 115,000, 67% of which came from its youth division.  What’s more, marathons in Boston, New York, and Columbus, Ohio, which once required USATF membership to gain entry,  have long since done away with that requirement, seeing no reciprocal benefit accruing to its entrants for the necessity.

Thus, the questions which culminated in South Africa’s first free elections in 1993 that brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency have, over the years, found their way into the circles of road racing, to wit: should road racing remain under the umbrella of USATF in its minority position, or should it attempt to strike out on its own to form an autonomous union with members of its own ranks, and in so doing allow USATF the freedom to better serve its more historically aligned constituencies? Continue reading

IAAF PRESIDENT NOMINATED FOR NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

 

IAAF president Lamine Diack

IAAF president Lamine Diack

The Norwegian Nobel Committee today has announced that IAAF president Lamine Diack of Senegal has been nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his and his organization’s long and unwavering leadership in the promotion of cooperation through running around the world.

“The Nobel Committee has long believed that there is a close connection between health, fitness and peace,” said a committee spokesman in announcing the selection. “Such connections are a prerequisite for the fraternity between nations of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will.”

Over the past several decades the IAAF has made enormous progress in creating and sustaining running initiatives throughout the world, even as it hopes to culminate those efforts with their proposed Israeli-Palestinian Friendship Marathon Relay, which yearns to bring the long-time enemies into accord through the “Runners Without Borders” program.  The event would symbolically use as its finish line the proposed permanent border between Israel and the Palestinian state.

“No matter the differences between people, the act of running has been instrumental in showing us all the commonality rather than differences between us,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee. “The IAAF has shown us all what’s possible in the realm of human cooperation through international sport. We would also like to make special note of the work done by the IAAF’s 212 national governing body members, which have become the ne plus ultra of competence and forward thinking. What would the athletes of the world do without them? We can only imagine.”   Continue reading

WHEN THE SHOE DOESN’T FIT ANYMORE

I was in Tampa last weekend to help announce the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic as the old-line road race was reintroducing prize money after an absence of 17-years. After the race I drove north to visit old friends in Gainesville where I’d spent 10 winters in the 1990s. And what happened while I was away?  The track world falls apart in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the U.S. Indoor Nationals.

I tell you, I’ve been trying my best to embrace USATF as a changing, responsive national governing body, what with Max Siegel taking over in an appreciably quiet, yet focused way as CEO.  And though there were momentary echoes of some benighted AAU or TAC ghost hovering near the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials selection process that chose L.A. over Houston, a closer inspection revealed both sides on firm ground with no hidden agendas, and a fair argument to bolster its case.  Just sad one of the cities had to lose.  And with combined trials, the sport loses inventory, too, as there is one less national exposure available.

Brooks athlete Gabby Grunewald passes Nike Athlete Jordan Hasay in women's 3000.

Brooks athlete Gabby Grunewald about to pass Nike Athlete Jordan Hasay in women’s 3000.

But now again at the indoor nationals in Albuquerque we see yet another shit storm erupt in the controversy surrounding the no, no,yes, no again disqualification of Gabby Grunewald in the women’s 3000 meters.  Certainly, given the evidence available to anyone who watched that race, or has ever spent any time racing or watching indoor meets over the years, while there was minor contact, (in my opinion) there was nothing suggesting disqualification.  Indoor track has long been a contact sport as bodies fatigue, wits wither, and space narrows. Yet due to the current organizational structure and sponsorship arrangements of USATF, once again we saw the fuse of unrest only needing a minor spark to ignite a major controversy. Continue reading

COMING AROUND AGAIN

GasparillaTampa, FL. — Certainly, I’ve been a critic over the years of the sport’s de-emphasis on competition in favor of fun-running and charity fund-raising, likening that trend to America’s de-emphasis on education in favor of grade-inflation and child buttering.  Jerry Seinfeld did a great bit Tuesday night on Jimmy Fallon’s second night as Tonight Show host on this topic, saying, “when we were young our parents didn’t give a damn about us.  They didn’t even know our names!”

But history isn’t linear, and pendulums have a habit of sweeping back in the other direction.  Thus, a quick survey of recent moves in the sport lead to a conclusion that competition is once again being noticed, even appreciated, and highlighted.

This weekend I am here in Tampa for the return of the Gasparilla Distance Classic to the ranks of pro racing. It’s the first time Gasparilla has invited a pro field to the streets of Tampa since 1997. And its a welcome return to what traditionally had been the best field of the year during the 1980s and `90s when Gasparilla was the first race of the year and everyone was anxious to get out of the cold and into Florida for a blistering 15K burnout. This year it will be a pro half-marathon with an American based field, which I will break down after talking with the athletes as they assemble. Continue reading

NEW SHOES

shoe pile     Every new pair of running shoes smells faintly of hope. It’s part of the bargain, I guess. Put your money down, make your dreams come true. But after a while you stop noticing.  Hope simply becomes your partner, your mate, your significant other, part of what drives you.  But stop running and those same shoes begin to give off a whiff of despair, staring back from cold desolation of the closet or jumbled together in that useless pile by the door. It’s an odd transformation, but it holds. That’s as much wisdom as I can offer after thirty-plus years in the game.

We live with such hope sewn into our hearts.  It’s always there, in the next run, the next race, the next text or phone call.  Do people even make phone calls anymore? These days the phone is too tedious, too involving.  It’s like letter writing I can’t be bothered — which is a long way from when long distance was used only for births, weddings, holidays and funerals. Go figure.

They ask why we do it, and what’s to say? It’s the best I can do with what I’ve got?  How about that?  Because not doing it is a calcification of whatever spirit I have left?  That work for you?  What is losing after all, but the probable outcome of trying?  So we try, then try again. Because the more we try the less value we accord loss, and greater the satisfaction if it works out otherwise.  But don’t rely too much that it will.  You’ll just be setting yourself up. Continue reading

TERROR, THE NEW JOBS CREATOR

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

The sporting question to be answered Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII is whether the best defensive in the league can stop the best offense. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the best defense in the Meadowlands this Sunday won’t come from the Seattle Seahawks sidelines, but from the federal government.   SUPER SECURITY TAKES OVER SUPER BOWL...Hidden snipers deployed in stadium...Black Hawk Helicopters On Alert...F-16s prepared to scramble...

Yes, security at the Super Bowl has been ramped up to super-sized levels, and we know where it is headed next. With the bombings at last year’s Boston Marathon, and the government’s recent decision to seek the death penalty against surviving bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one can only imagine the security force that will encircle the 26.2 mile route come April 21. Continue reading

FROM BULLDOGS TO BROADWAY – RANDOM THOUGHTS

CrossFitter Kevin Ogar

CrossFitter Kevin Ogar

Injuries are an inevitable weigh station on the road to sporting excellence.  Just this past weekend the world of CrossFit was rocked by the news that Kevin Ogar, a CrossFit coach from Englewood, Colorado, had severed his spine while performing a powerlift at a competition in California.  And of course these days football is nothing if not an outer waiting room for various orthopedic surgeons and increasingly, neurologists and medical examiners.

Running has its overuse injuries, for sure, but football has car wrecks.  Continue reading