19th Century Sport in Search of 21st Century Foothold


     Running has long found it difficult to secure a solid foothold on the American sporting landscape.  One reason is lack of professionalism when compared to other mainstream sports.  Another is the growth spurt of X Games events and modern day heroes like Shaun White in the popular culture.  But another reason is as simple as formatting. 

The most popular American sports are episodic in nature, featuring a pitch, a play, a shot every 30 seconds. They are also segmented into quarters, periods, or halves, making for easy television coverage.  So even with tens of millions of self-designated runners bounding about the continent for the last thirty years on personal quests, Americans have yet to fully embrace a sport which is linear, doesn’t involve a ball or violence, and only pays off on an investment of interest shown over a long, gradual build up.

Beyond the formatting aspect, however, the very ethos of running plays against its success in 21st century America.  Not only is the sport a holdover from the 19th century when vast numbers of people moved from small towns to large cities and leisure time was, for the first time, afforded them in relative abundance, but in today’s culture the whole concept of short-term sacrifices in the cause of long-term rewards has become as untethered to the American brain stem as family farming and virgin weddings.  Congressional tribalism in the face of health care and entitlement reform seems only the leading indicator, but there are other sign posts, as well.

From the end of the Great Depression until 1980 America’s savings rate hovered around 10%.  Since then we have witnessed a rapid decline as the era of human growth consumption began to displace delayed gratification as a guiding financial principle.  The lesson contained in that sea-change has been: “Get mine, and get mine now!”  Even though unconscious, this trend is an acknowledgement that one’s best days are behind, and that faith in the future can no longer sustain the nation’s dreams.

When the twin towers fell on 9/11 what were we as a nation summoned to do? 

“Go shopping. Don’t let ‘em change our way of life.”

Well, that’s quite a call to action in the face of an existential threat.

In your face, Osama!

Forget how unsustainable that way of life may be, we’ll show `em who’s tough with our sub-prime mortgage meltdown.  Right, until the housing bubble burst revealing the bloated, debt-ridden underbelly of conspicuous over-consumption, which, by the way, had swelled in sheer girth until our extended bellies became the very representation of our indulgent, wasteful ways.

The organizing principle for self-governance has always been the need for an educated populace.  Is it happenstance that America reached its highest percentage of high school graduates in 1969, and that the decline in that education has now led to states to suggest four-day school weeks to reduce over strained budgets?  How’s that for short-term thinking and prioritizing? It has long been said that we deserve a government as good as the American people.  Guess what?  Mission accomplished.

Not surprisingly, we have even forgotten our own recent history.  The fall of the Soviet Union was, at least in part, due to their attempt to keep up with Uncle Sam’s military spending on Stars Wars and the like.  Now Osama bin Laden and his loosely confederated followers are turning that tactic back on us with their low-tech terror policy.  Even as bin Laden remains holed up in his primitive briar patch along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the one he pleaded with G.W. not to throw him into, we have elevated him to ultimate boogey-man status.  Out in the open bin Laden wouldn’t represent a threat of any kind.  But hide him away in our national anxiety closet, and he has us flinching at every turn, at every ruddy-faced Middle Eastern profile until here we stand in serpentine lines removing our shoes, and soon our underwear, at airports.

Then there is the entire nativist / Birther movement growing upon the land, as rampant as its corollary on foreign soil.  When the far right begins questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency because he wasn’t native-born, what more does bin Laden need to do?  We are doing it for him, using our isolation and fear as his most potent weapon. 

But remember, too, in the year 2011 we are 235 years into what has been called this experiment in self-rule.  Now recall that during the long history of the Chinese dynastic system, from the Tang Dynasty between 618-906 A.D through to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the five dynasties spanning those 1300 years averaged a rule of 248 years.

A governmental system established in the late 18th century which represented a particular world order and world vision, separated from its antagonists by vast ocean expanses and populated by roughly four million homogenous people would be difficult to fit into a world 235 years older, and at the same time smaller, speedier, more open, and infused with long-brewing resentments along with the hostile means of redressing those resentments.  Same goes for a 19th century sport based on a mostly agrarian way of life.

We speak of original intent like it was the second set of tablets handed down from Mount Sinai. And prescient as the Founders may have been, their goals and methods were particular to the times which wrought them.  The anxieties and fears they emigrated with from England are no longer our fears or anxieties. And with each passing generation we move farther and farther from the touchstones which informed their logical inferences.

Is man’s sense of self-governance in the late 18th century compatible with its application in the early 21st?  Is tying our public education system to vestiges of an agrarian economy a proper fit for a post-industrial society? Thus we find long distance running searching for validation in a fast-food culture. 

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