Track and field is a sport of extremes, taking the most basic athletic abilities of running, jumping, and throwing, and distilling them into the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. For centuries the world was intrigued by the demands and outcome of these quests. However, since Mexico City 1968, when the newly post-colonial nations of the world began competing internationally, the outer limits of speed in both sprinting and distance running have settled into predictable patterns. Four decades later we are seeing the full results of that predictability as the sport of track and field continues to wither on the vine.
After watching the first round of Samsung Diamond League finals from Zurich yesterday, I did a quick workup of the fastest times in the world in 2011for 5000m, 10,000m, half-marathon, and marathon gathered from the IAAF site. As always, the numbers reveal an unambiguous, but intriguing story.
Of the top 60 times run so far in 2011 in the marathon – including the windy top 10 at Boston – Kenya has 35, Ethiopia 16, Morocco four, Japan two, Brazil, Uganda, and the USA one each. 87% born in East Africa.
In the 5000m, the top 60 times are: Kenya 27; Ethiopia 17; USA five; GBR, Spain, and Uganda two; Bahrain, Australia, Mexico, and Eritrea one each. 88% born in East Africa. Of the top 24 of those performances, all were produced by athletes born in East Africa.
The numbers are even more stark in the sprints. Christophe Lemaitre ran his French national record 9.92 in the 100 meters this year, yet it only represents the 20th fastest 100m of 2011. Despite this the Frenchman has generated such headlines over the last two years because he was the first and only European, or someone of European ancestry, to ever break 10 seconds in the 100.
Yet while the world’s greatest sprint speed has emerged from a West African base, that diaspora has spread over the centuries – for all the wrong reasons, initially – eventually assimilating into a large number of countries worldwide, giving fans local heroes to root for. The distance end of the spectrum, however, remains primarily locked around the Horn of Africa, even though the inevitable spread has begun (See Somali-born Mo Farah in England, Kenya-born Bernard Lagat, Eritrea-born Meb Keflezighi, Somali-born Abdi Abdirahman in the USA).
Notwithstanding, the scales are so tilted toward East African runners in the distance events that a straight up competition more often than not translates into Kenya versus Ethiopia, which, given its predictability, no longer engages wide-spread public interest anymore. And by trying to supplant stories of competition with world record attempts, we further distance ourselves from the blood and guts which originally compelled our attention in the first place.
Under our current competitive model, all drama has been eliminated. When you know the results of a competition before the gun goes off, how do you engage public interest? Especially when the winners are generally disinclined, and never required to improve their media skills while competing for insignificant stakes as defined by the popular culture? Without a system in place to create distinct personalities for the public to root for or against, we see the result, the drastic devolution away from competition to participation over the last 20-plus years in U.S. road racing.
Though appreciated for their excellence, today’s runners, outside a few recent exceptions like Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, have not generated a base of fans to make their racing exploits compelling public spectacles. Nor has the running industry developed a system to frame their exploits or increased the stakes for which they compete which might bridge the gap in disinterest in the seemingly interchangeable individual athletes.
As a friend who once worked in the industry told me recently, “When I was immersed in the sport, I was a fan. But once you are removed from it, it’s boring. I have no interest in it at all. And road racing, forget it.”
What to Do?
Basically, there are five options. 1) Accept the reality, and hope a local hero will emerge from the ether (the current model). 2) Don’t invite East African runners at all, which would be both wrong, and instantly acknowledge a minor league system that no large sponsor would back. 3) (via Barbara Huebner, ex-Boston Globe writer) Don’t invite athletes who have no media skills. “Speaking English isn’t strictly necessary – remember Chilean miner Edison Pena and that wonderful translator last year in NYC. But knowing how to project and share your personality, likes, dislikes, triumphs and tribulations IS necessary. Events should work harder to provide GOOD translators, and managers should work harder to get their athletes to execute what’s required. If the managers start getting hit in the pocketbook, you can bet more athletes would get with the program in a hurry.” 4) Create a handicapping system like horse racing’s age-for-weight mechanism where the older/stronger horses carry extra weight to balance the competition to maintain public interest, or 5) Co-opt these athletes, like other sports do, into an American-based teams system where rooting for the larger concept supersedes the lack of individual interest.
All things considered, a combination of solutions # 3 (improving media skills) and # 5 (co-opting athletes into team-based competitions) would be the best way forward for running. If we are to advance competitive racing we need to consider the realities before us. By maintaining the current model of signing the fastest available runners for the lowest amount of money with no regard to their skill set beyond running fast, we will continue to see a withering of interest in our sport. As Bank of America Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski says, “TV is very challenging.”
A shift, therefore, should be undertaken away from pitting anonymous and silent individuals against one another to a competitive model that faces-off teams representing either their nations, or the events in which they run.
So it’s the Crescent City Crusaders versus the Cherry Blossom Senators versus the Boulder Mountaineers versus the Peachtree Patriots, etc., competing in a tour of events with teams wearing logos of the events they represent (with all athletes still sporting their shoe company sponsor logos, as well), while gathering points in a season long tour culminating in a championship race. In this fashion athletes of several nations would be merged onto opposing teams, like the 28% of Major League Baseball players who were not born in the USA.
It’s Road Racing’s Fault
We are not talking about track racing. This is road racing. I find it interesting that Peter Mathu, the head Kenyan coach at the recent World Championships in Daegu, blamed road racing for his athletes disappointing results in the longer track races.
“Many of our athletes take part in road races prior to major championships,” he said. “And this always slows them down when the competition starts. It is something we must look into as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Not only does road racing not have any event in the Olympics or World Championships to help promote and market the sport – don’t say the marathon, because that is a different beast altogether – the roads are now at fault for slowing down the track runners. Talk about being the red-headed step-child.
All good marketing strategies share some common traits, including a thorough understanding of the product’s status and narrative, a realistic assessment of its strengths and weaknesses, intimate knowledge of the consumer and market, and a grasp of big picture implications. If we don’t begin with an honest assessment of our weaknesses, how can we hope to build to strength?
If we continue to follow rules which were developed for championship track racing, we will continue to witness not just a stagnant competitive model, but a dying one. The numbers don’t lie. Road Racing must alter its competitive model to survive. Simply contributing to American distance development camps will not be sufficient to balance the current equilibrium.