Avoiding Our ‘Race to the Bottom’

      Globalization, an inevitable consequence of our increasingly technological world, has driven multi-national corporations to the far corners of the globe in search of the cheapest possible labor and the most advantageous corporate tax policies.  As a result, pressure on middle-class wages at home has split the country farther and farther into the have and have-not camps.  At the same time, the government’s ability to maintain balance and equanimity amongst the strata of society has been diminished by what Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs calls a worldwide race to the bottom as nations vie to lure wealthy corporations via tax policy and loopholes, policies which inevitably lead to shrinking revenues and reduced social services, further bifurcating the country.

It’s a cycle the so-called running community has witnessed over the last 20+ years itself as events sought cheaper and more abundant elite athlete labor, primarily from east Africa. In turn, road racing’s unregulated marketplace has stagnated at 1980s purse levels, displacing American, European, and Austral-Asian runners who found it impossible to sustain the rigorous lifestyle necessary to compete at an international level for the reduced wages on offer, while East African athletes still earned what for them was win-fall profits when compared to the meager average annual wages back home.

Without an international cast to their fields, there has been a diminished interest in racing across the board as the same results were repeated week in and week out ad infinitum. In the process a once-thriving international class of competitive racer has been lost as the industry turned its focus solely toward participation and charity fund-raising.  Over time, the back-of-the-pack runners lost all connection to the front end competitions, and the middle-class of recreational racers disappeared.  But with events more robust in participants than ever, there is little pressure to even see a problem, much less to address it.

Just as in corporate America, as long as running events don’t see themselves as part of a larger community, as long as their interests are as narrowly construed as possible, then there is no problem.  Only when a sense of community takes hold does a concomitant responsibility form.


When the Nike-sponsored Cascade Run Off 15k in Portland, Oregon defied amateur rules and paid open prize money at their 1981 race, it changed the sport, and led to the open era. Yet when this founding member of the Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA) circuit lost its sponsorship a few years later, none of its fellow ARRA events saw the need to help maintain Cascade’s existence until a new sponsor could be found.  There was no sense of Cascade being “one of us”, and it folded, taking a seminal moment in road racing history to the grave with it.

     The female winner of that historic `81 Cascade Run Off was New Zealand Olympian Anne Audain. She and male winner Greg Meyer of Boston earned $10,000 for their victories.  In today’s money, that purse would be worth anywhere from $24,000 using the Consumer Price Index to $46,900 using relative share of GDP.  Audain looks back over the last twenty years with a strong sense of regret.

“No USA athlete can have the “road-racing” career I had in the 80’s,” says Audain from her home in Indiana.  “As someone who came to the USA to resurrect a career halted by the 1980 Olympic boycott, I feel I got the best out of the sport in those years.  I didn’t get rich in $$ but I did in experiences which resulted in founding the Celebration 5K in Boise, Idaho, and becoming a U.S. citizen.  I would not be who I am if not for our sport, and I wanted to return the favor.

“I just want to see more USA runners coming out of college having the same competitive platform I had, and not get forced to run marathons as the only way to make some money.

“One statistic to illustrate my point: In 1982 I went unbeaten in 12 major road USA road races. If anyone managed to do that in 2011 they would only make $51,000.  Many of those races have the same first place amount as in 1982 (Bloomsday 12K in Spokane), some have gone away (Cascade Runoff 15K, Portland).  No Western world athlete can earn a living racing on the roads, even as currency exchange rates help all the others to become quite wealthy in their respective countries.

“1982 – `84 were my best years income wise, topping $100,000 as a non-USA citizen and non- marathoner, even though I ran the LA Olympic Marathon in `84.  I earned prize purses, and I also got appearance fees, bonuses for repeat wins and course records. Not at every event, but it was there.  I also had a shoe contract.

“Also, we athletes were expected to act as “professionals” at the road-races.  Those of us receiving appearance fees were expected to turn up three days in advance, do media, community visits, stand in booths at the expos, and remain for the award’s ceremony where we were called on to speak when receiving our awards.

“Think how many USA women were on the circuit then (1980’s), not to mention the English, Irish, European, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders.  We in NZ even had second division gals who could come and make a nice little sum. It is really coming back to me as I think about all that we are discussing.

“Take, for instance, the Legg’s/Advil/now New York Mini.  When I won in 1983 beating Grete Waitz there were 9000 plus women.  Now it says in the Road Race Management book they only get 4000-5000 entrants (5193 finishers in 2010). Point is there are no “local” women heroes for the rest to come out and see.

“I have a great picture of the 1988 Legg’s. There are eight of us spread across the road:  Joanie, Ingrid, Francie, Lisa Ondieki, Mary Slaney, Margeret Groos, Grete, and me. It was featured in Sports Illustrated too. We were known by only our first names in the sport! There was a great picnic in Central Park afterwards and a party at a night club that evening.

“We have lost so much. I feel so fortunate right now that I got to experience those exciting years. BTW, my times from back then still stack up on those courses. I am still third all-time at Bloomsday, second at Cleveland, third at Crim, and second at Boulder, so it’s not that gals are faster. It is also fascinating to see the crowds in my videos and the fitness of the ‘local” runners. We had the stars that people followed, and two national tours, the Pro Comfort series and Diet Pepsi Series.

“We aren’t trying to invent something new, just want to go back to where we were and improve on that!/

Thanks to Annie for those memories.  Today, she serves on the Running USA board of directors hoping to resurrect support for the sport which helped define her life.

Though distance running is an individual sport, it is also a sport of synergy where combining efforts in training and racing eases the burden on each individual member of the pack.  Yet we as a sport continue to go it alone, willing to vest only minimal resources into a mutual effort that reaches out to the needy (children), or supports the preparation of homegrown excellence.  As Professor Sachs points out regarding international tax policy: “to get to the right place countries cannot act by themselves” if they want to avoid their own race to the bottom.


12 thoughts on “Avoiding Our ‘Race to the Bottom’

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  2. Jon,

    You, Annie, Greg lived through those halcyon days, and can look back now with a combination of pride and disappointment. No way running should be primariy the lifestyle/charity fund-raising engine it is now. The sport should, and still can be a much more important driver of the enterprise. We know it’s possible, because we witnessed it before. But as long as the events maintain their every-man-for-himself attitude, things will never advance. People took the easy way out in the TAC Trust fight, and we never quite made it all the way to true professionalism. Sadly, that inability to fully alter the old-boy system still haunts us to this day.

  3. Thanks, Toni… that’s a very accurate summary of what’s happened. The follow on email traffic was interesting and I’m enjoying all of the discussion about that era. The recent article in Running Times was a pretty balanced retelling of that whole Cascade ’81 experience. I only wish that someone would point out how seriously negative the outcome of the TAC Trust really was and how that changed the whole progression of the sport of road racing. True, Cascade ’81 was the beginning of a new era, but the Trust system left professional road racing in the hands of people that had no interest in seeing it move forward. Actually, TAC (controlled largely by University coaches) had every interest in seeing the professional side of distance running fail. Ollan Cassal stated in the early 90’s, when confronted with the total lack of success in moving road racing forward, that USATF was not a “marketing agency”, but a regulatory body. Essentially, we dropped the fate of our sport into the hands of people that had no interest in or responsibility for its success. Its no wonder that road racing is where it is thirty years later.

    I really believe that the failure to move forward started where professionalism in the sport began… in 1981. When we capitulated to the TAC Trust, we gave up our chances at control over the sport’s destiny and, ironically, allowed sports like professional basketball and hockey to assume a wider acceptance, a more universal platform for their sports. Maybe the ARRA movement would have died, but that argument is pretty tough to make. The higher percentage falls on its success and what would have been a separation from the tender mercies of TAC. If that had happened, things would be completely different today and we wouldn’t be wondering why The Golden Age of Running actually ended in 1984. For that, I think we have Frank Shorter and his friends to blame.

  4. All above comments on this topic are so “on track” .I thank everyone for their contributions. Am up in Anchorage this week speaking to a wide variety of audiences but last evening my documentary was shown to an audience of mainly local runners , some 250 or more . A variety of age groups including many young high school runners.
    The comments afterwards from many. ‘ We had no idea the sport used to be like that”
    There was no knowledge of the amateur / pro days, how the circuit used to be. Young girls couldn’t name any USA female stars. Question from many: How are we going to fix this?
    It will take interested ,committed and “no personal” agenda teamwork. It has all happened before. Just need to bring it back and improve on. It could be an exciting opportunity.

  5. So here are my questions: what happened that changed everything? Why since the mid-80s (perhaps?) has running “…existed in a constant state of dissolution?” What caused the shift? Isn’t the key to solving a problem knowing exactly why the problem occurred? Is there general agreement on the reason(s) why, and if there is, shouldn’t that reality be driving the solutions?

    1. Don’t know how Greg sees it, but the critical moment in my mind came when ARRA, the Association of Road Race Athletes, allowed race directors to take over what was begun as an athlete’s union. With the athletes in control they could have created rules to allow access to their tour while generating ever improving purses as sponsors joined.

      Once the athletes allowed race directors to take over, the focus turned to getting rid of appearance fees and offering prize money alone. That change tilted the sport toward cheap but fast talent rather than star talent. At first it made sense, but over time it killed interest in the sport of racing as average runners and the public lost interest in fast strangers for whom public relations was anathema. This choked off rooting for the outcome of competitions which became boringly similar week in and week out with nameless interchangeable faces replacing other nameless anonymous faces. And any clinical interest in times that were run could never make up for the emotional attachment to specific heroes. Before we knew it, Tim Murphy created the first Rock `n` Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, and the transition to fitness lifestyle completely overwhelmed the sport of distance racing.

  6. Toni:

    Great article and interesting observations after.

    I agree I would like to see a return of American distance runners, and with it the return of some excitement around the sport of running, not just the “events” of running.

    One point I would like to make, and I think it starts with the colleges, is the lack of meaningful competition. Our runners no longer run in scoring meets in college. They run time trials in order to qualify for nationals. Fans are not interested in this, they want head to head competition. After college, our better runners sign nice contracts with shoe companies, and with the financial security provided, they don’t have the need nor interest to race. In looking at the past, Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Ann Audain, Herb Lindsay and others raced often and against each other. While we may have over raced at times, its hard to argue with the results. Bill Rodgers was #1 in the world four times in the marathon. Samuelson won the gold medal in LA. Look at the number of male marathoners under 2:11 back in the early 80’s and its amazing in comparison to today. With training techniques supposedly better coupled with nutritional and psychological experts advising the athletes and the return of group / club teams training together, the only component I see missing is the racing toughness and experience that was mandated in the 80’s. I believe these athletes are missing the instincts for racing while they work to run a “time”.

    I see no reason to pump more money into teams if all they do is fund training, not racing. Having athletes actually race promotes the sport. On a side note, if a US athlete accepts a training stipend, I would expect them to make every effort to represent the US in international competition as well as US Road racing championships.

    Just my opinion…I know there is more to this than just racing, but I feel strongly this is a missing component.

    1. Who would have a better perspective than the 1983 Boston Marathon champion? Thanks for posting, Greg.

      I, too, believe racing is a key element. We need rivalries again like GBTC and Colorado TC. Each brought out the best in the other. As for colleges, we can blame Title IX for the demise of the scoring college track meet. Title IX, I repeat, not women themselves. Unfortunatley, colleges turned Title IX into a zero-sum game, taking away from men to give to women to even up the spending. From that track teams lost the scholarships necessary to field entire teams. With only 12.5 scholarships schools like Arkansas began winning NCAA titles using primarily jumps and distance running alone. Without entire teams you couldn’t stage meaningful duel meets, and the rivalries of the past began to disappear.

      Funding for trainng must come with a quid pro quo for racing. But as long as shoe companies attach reduction clauses in their contracts for failing to rank in the top three in your event, runners will hesitate to race unless they’re 100% fit. And how often is that? Also, race prize purses diminish so quickly from the top prize that the system doesn’t encourage risk taking. It’s all a product of generating money from within individual race markets rather than building a tour to sell to national or international sponsors.

      “A society in which each is willing to surrender only that for which he can see a personal equivalent is not a society at all,” said judicial philosopher Learned Hand. “It is a group already in process of dissolution.”

      Unfortunately, running never quite got to the society stage after coming so close with ARRA in the early `80s. Since then we have existed in a constant state of dissolution, each event and athlete separate and distinct. We remain encamped there to this day.

  7. Claudia,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking response. I am not one who believes in making road racing an American-only sport, nor in limiting prize money to American runners. What I do advocate is an even playing field. That is why the move’s afoot to help fund American post-collegiate training camps, then let the chips fall where they may come race day – once racing privileges are attained through an orderly system that delineates responsibilities for athletes who hope to win prize money.

    Racing from point A to point B should not be one’s only responsibility. We must all contribute to the enterprise if we want to share the bounty of that enterprise. But at present, with no rules whatsoever governing road racing, the odds are severely stacked against athletes who must live full-time in countries with one standard of living who must then compete against runners from poorer countries where earnings garner so much more in buying power. Systems create realities, and road running’s lack of any system beyond laissez-faire, has driven the sport into the stew of lifestyle options you point to above. It need not stay that way. Interested parties need only pool their ideas and resources, and nothing will diminish that presently exists, only something new may flourish as it did in the past.

  8. Toni: Excellent points made by both you and Anne. I know exactly what she’s talking about as I was also running on the “circuit” back in the mid-to late 80s, as a masters runner. It was a remarkable time, and one I know I’ll never forget. The camaraderie among all the athletes, open and masters, was strong; we often roomed together, ran together pre-and post race and hung out together at after race functions. We all knew one another, and perhaps most importantly, the average runner knew who we were, too. (The former race director of what used to be the Parkersburg Half Marathon even credits Jon Sinclair for putting his race “on the map”, so to speak: Jon proclaimed a hot, hilly, humid 13.1 mile race in West Virginia in August was the place to be, so people came and ran, again and again) Back in those long ago days, people showed up in big numbers at expos to hear their favorite runners/heroes/stars talk, everyday runners were interested in what Keith Brantley, Mark Curp, Sinclair, Ed Eyestone, Diane Brewer, Lisa Weidenbach, Kim Jones and others had to say; they knew they could learn from them, they were inspired by them. It was an extraordinary time, not just for those of us who were racing regularly but for those people who came in behind us on race day. We all felt a sense of accomplishment and pride, whether it took us 36 minutes to run a 10K, or 50. But that has changed now, so many races have become “events”, giant moving street parties; for instance, it used to be that runners ran hard so they could party-hearty at the beer garden in the brewery parking lot after the Utica Boilermaker, now runners (and walkers) expect some sort of entertainment all along the way of most races. It’s as if multi-tasking has become such a part of modern life that people can’t just run, jog or walk, they have to have bands to listen to, they want cheerleaders along the course, they want to carry their Iphones so they can take pics, they want to dress up in costumes. Back in the day I worked (briefly) for a race promoter named Dean Reinke. Reinke wasn’t exactly the most honest guy around, but through his ICI Masters Circuit he created a buzz and excitement about the sport that we could sure use now. He recognized that Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter turning 40 in the same year was a tremendous opportunity to put together a circuit of races, with a big-time, big money sponsor that provided opportunities for over-40 runners to make money, get name recognition and promote the sport all over the country. (Try putting together a circuit like that now…for over 40 runners, are you kidding?) I also seem to remember that a few races in the South (I believe Parkersburg was one, and Cooper River might have been another, someone please correct me on this if I’m wrong) tried during that time period to reduce the number of foreign (African for the most part) athletes and pay prize money to only Americans. I also seem to remember that the idea was met with some resistance, so it was abandoned after one season. But perhaps the time is now to consider something like this again, of course prize money goes only to Americans in USATF championships, and there are a few other races that have American money, but what about doing it on a larger scale? What about combining the ICI Masters Circuit idea with an “affirmative action” if you will program, that would give money/appearance fees/travel/lodging/per diem to American athletes only? I know I sort of rambled on here, but I guess that’s what blogs are for, right?

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