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.