Politically incorrect or not, the truth is both indisputable and self-evident: The utter domination of distance running by athletes from East Africa, a continuing trend which has seemed to peak in 2011, has now begun to shrink the sport itself. The atrophy is as evident as the hollows beneath Demi Moore’s cheekbones.
More evidence was on display again today at the NCAA D1 Men’s Cross Country Championship in Terre Haute, Indiana in the person of Arizona freshman Lawi Lalang of Kenya. A wholly inexperienced distance runner who showed up on the Arizona campus last fall “with no competitive running experience whatsoever” according to his Wildcat bio sheet, Lalang was, nevertheless, an easy runaway winner in today’s national championship over his more seasoned competitors.
This stark difference in talent was a contributing factor which led to the recent departure of sub-4:00 high school mile star Lukas Verzbicas from the track program at the University of Oregon to train full-time for triathlon at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs – VERZBICAS CHOOSES TRIATHLON OVER RUNNING. That was a particularly troubling loss, since it represented another strand of running’s DNA being torn away. But young Lukas was quite straight forward about his decision. After winning the ITU World Junior Triathlon Championship this year, he looked at what lie ahead, and didn’t see himself being able to run what he considered world-level times against the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. So off he swam /biked to triathlon where no such (dominant) competition awaited. But the Lukas loss is just another example in an increasing trend that has diminished a once robust sport.
Look to the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, what many have called the hardest, most competitive race in the world. Pitting (as it once did) milers to marathoners over a 12K course, World Cross has been fighting a severe East African imbalance for two decades. Even as far back as 1998, the world governing body of the sport, the IAAF, understood there was trouble brewing. Kenyan men had won the previous 12 world team titles (on their way to 18 straight, 1986-`2004), and before that the Ethiopians had won five in a row (1981-`85).
And so in 1998 in Marrakesh, Morocco the IAAF introduced two new events to World Cross, a shorter 4Km race for men on top of their traditional 12Km tussle, as well as a 4K race for women to go along with their 8Km championship. The idea was to open opportunities for other nations to produce champions. Instead, it just added to the East African medal haul with Ethiopia’s Keninisa Bekele going on an unprecedented five-year sweep of both individual men’s titles.
Finally, after another medal binge by the Africans in 2006, the IAAF abandoned the shorter races altogether. Three years later, the IAAF Council decided to make world cross country a biennial event, because fewer and fewer nations were participating in light of the African domination. International participation reached its highest levels in 2000 when 76 nations came to Vilamoura, Portugal. This year in Punta Umbria, Spain, only 55 countries fielded teams.
Another indicator of the atrophying of the sport is the sudden disappearance of 10,000-meter track races. Once a staple on the European circuit (and still a World Championships and Olympic event), today, the 10,000 has all but gone the way of the American honey bee. The chief culprit here is the two-year old Samsung Diamond League. Due to television time restrictions, the 14-meet world tour only stages events up to 5000 meters. As a consequence, the 10,000 has largely been consigned to meets in three cities: Brussels, Belgium; Eugene, Oregon; and Palo Alto, California. The talent that once spun out 25 laps has gone, instead, to the 26 miles of the marathon.
In fact, it is the entry of young East African talent into the marathon which forms the primary reason for the remarkable drop in marathon times over the last two years. At the same time, prize purses for distance performances outside the marathon have stagnated at developing world standards, stripping from the sport former powers like New Zealand, The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Russia, Mexico, and Australia even as the very top Americans and Brits hang on by dint of their still-viable shoe contracts.
Then there is largest purveyor of road races in the nation, The Competitor Group, Inc. out of San Diego, California. Currently staging marathons and half-marathons in 17 U.S. cities (and this year moving into Europe for the first time) Competitor Group, despite its name, is almost devoid of elite competition.
“An event shouldn’t be defined by the prize money,” Tracy Sundlun, vice president of the Competitor Group, told My S.A. after prize money for Rock `n` Roll San Antonio was chopped to $1,000 for the winner of both the men’s and women’s marathon this year – down from $17,500 in 2008 and 2009, and less even than the $3,000 awarded last year.
Tracy recalled the total prize money in the event’s inaugural year, 2008, as $80,000, the first year that the investment firm Falconhead Capital had purchased the Rock `n` Roll brand of races from Elite Racing. In 2009 the purse still stood at about $74,000, before dropping to $21,000 in 2010. This year total prize money for both the marathon and half-marathon in San Antonio was pinched to $14,250.
Except for strong fields at their San Diego home marathon in June, the Carlsbad 5000 up the coast in April, and the RnR Philadelphia Half Marathon in September, CGI’s working model pays one marquee athlete (like American Olympic medalists Shalane Flanagan in the recent Rock `n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon, or Meb Keflizighi at their Los Angeles and San Jose half-marathons) a healthy appearance fee to run a solo effort without the inconvenience of competition. This reductive market approach minimizes athlete expenditures, guarantees the marquee athlete as no-fuss winner, while covering the elite-athlete angle for the local press which doesn’t cover the sport on a regular basis.
While theirs is a for-profit, growth-seeking business with every right and privilege to run that business as they see fit — with no obligation whatsoever to build or promote the sport — notwithstanding, when combined with the other atrophying trends evident in the sport, the CGI model is particularly ill-timed for the health of racing, and just another indication that, while going faster than ever, the sport of distance racing has hit its own wall.
(Not to be confused with participatory Activity of running which is healthier than ever.)