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.)
61 thoughts on “DISTANCE RACING HAS HIT THE WALL”
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A different way to frame the Lawi Lalang discussion is through two of his predecessors: Meb Keflezighi and Bernard Lagat. Neither Meb nor Lagat were US citizens when they won multiple NCAA championships. Meb had spent most of his life in the US, but did not become a citizen until his senior year at UCLA. Lagat competed for Kenya for 4 years after graduating from WSU, which included his Olympic silver medal. Going even further, we can also talk about Khalid Khannouchi who became a US citizen when he was nearly 30 after a disagreement with his national team and is still the (non-wind assisted) US marathon record holder.
Not to put too fine a point on it, then, if we’re serious about getting an American on a medal podium at the O’s or a WMM, why not bring over some ringers? The Middle Eastern countries have been doing it for years, and the UK is starting to as well. Considering the number of sub-2:10 Kenyans that will not make their Olympic team, we could bring a few to the US, grant them citizenship, and let them give us a fighting chance in the Majors and in Rio 2016. Even if that brought the US an Olympic or WMM gold it would not bring any more fans to the sport, and it would risk alienating what few fans we have. It just wouldn’t sit right with most Americans. But, aside from intent and transparency of motives, how would it be any different from Meb, Bernard or Khalid in making a statement about the state of US distance running (same goes for Mo Farah and British running)?
I’m not advocating that we go the ringer route, and doing so would engender some serious acrimony about what it means to be an “American athlete,” especially in a sport with such a major genetic component as running has. But I think some of this history helps put Lalang (next up, Cheserek) in context, and furthers the conversation about what we need from an athlete (a successful American – equal emphasis on both words) to get Americans to once more pay attention to competitive distance running.
Thanks for starting such a great conversation!
Why not limit competitions (non-Olympics and non-World Championships) to a max of three elite competitors from any one country? Both the Olympics and WC races are “fair” because there’s a realistic amount of competition that the non-African countries have to race against. There are probably 50-100 Ethiopians and Kenyans that aren’t selected to compete in the O or WC that are faster than 95% of those fields, but that’s ok because it creates competition within the race and interest by the masses. I’ll watch the races regardless, but there’s something compelling about seeing 5-10 countries represented at the starting line of a track race rather than 10-15 East Africans and maybe one European / American / Kiwi.
Thanks for the thought, Joe. This is the Bolder Boulder 10K format, three per nation in a team and individual competition. It might work better if there were a circuit of races all using the same format. But with every race a stand-alone affair, the local race director isn’t looking beyond his/her own event, therefore loading up with inexpensive talent that comes on its own makes more economic and workload sense from the individual race standpoint. There needs to be a national circuit with rules, qualifying standards, and regulations if the sport is to make any sense to the general public. Until then, we will continue to see participation numbers dominate the competitive side of the sport.
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toni – good thoughts on this. I answered your thoughts with some of my own at my own blog
so I’ll not go into long detail here. The lack of opportunities for distance runners is, major marathons aside, diminishing rapidly, and the loss of World XC will leave a gap that won’t truly hit home for a number of years. Having less track and XC and running overall leads to less youngsters dreaming of one day beating the rest of the world, no matter where that youngster is. Without exciting sporting events and keeping great match ups in the eyes of the world, our sport is marginalized and forgotten, and only shows up on the pages when there is a drug bust or something as bizarre as taking away legitimate world records from athletes.
We are suffering the same fate in my country South Africa,although PARTICIPATION seems to be high we hold the world record for the most PARTICIPANTS in an ultramarathoner but fail to release how many actually finish.In 2010 23500 runners entered and 14000 finished that is more than half the field due to Comrades Marathon having such a strict cut off.As Jason pointed out if you encourage excellence and put on your race number you are now COMPETITOR to push ones limits and obtain whats on offer.Race organizers must come with ways to encourage goals and achievements to do better next time. We had a sub 3hour marathon silver medal etc etc which even now is fading away and encouraging finishing just to get the numbers.
There are many excellent points here. I think it is also interesting to note that, at least in the US, there is a much higher cash flow into the sport within the distance running segment of Track and Field than there is in any other event area.
The least amount of money seems to be headed towards throwing events (even the ones where the US is actually near the top of the world like Shot Put).
Ultimately, I think the national governing bodies of the sport are often failing the development of talent … and there is no place worse than the USA for this. Money and training is made available for people who are already elite, but many events (from technical field events to long distances) take a long time to develop (far longer than the collegiate system can support).
Time for USATF to do something and not just sit around and talk about how good they are.
USATF owns not 1 Track and Field facility in this country.
Their talent development is entirely set upon HS and College systems and there is no support back.
There are no significant competitive opportunities present for developing athletes.
Public outcry should be directed at the management of our sport.
We shall see how this all turns out, but one of the biggest things holding athletes back is money. Jobs can pay well, and depending on prize money is a risky gamble. It is a gamble that is easier to take for a poor/subsistence farmer in East Africa than it is for a college graduate … especially when there is no real support for you in your effort.
Running in the USA is dead. Jamicans rule the sprints. East Africans rule the distances.
Time get rid of High School and College track and XC.
Christian, it is “row to hoe” not “road to hoe”.
Alas, I think there are socio-economic situations at play. An reasonably smart American kid can make a good, solid living with a college degree so the options are far more varied. Why run for years making money below the poverty line when a college grad (until the last couple of years) would get a job paying $30K or better per year? In the African nations, running is the equivalent of what American inner city kids see in basketball or maybe the suburban white kids see in football as a QB.
I believe there was a study published that proposed that socio-economic factors may play a bigger role than genetics.
What to do? Is the college system the best system for developing distance runners? I am leaning toward “no” at this point.
The prize money v appearance money has been debated in other places. I would like to see more prize money and less appearance money and for that to be prominently advertised. Some thing for shoe contracts (IAAF also needs to adjust its rules to allow for more opportunities for athletes to pay off their sponsors). It is commonly published in newspapers and internet what other pro athletes make (or at least reported). Maybe that sort of information would help although with what I think the low wages it might backfire.
Luke is at UC-Colorado Springs, not Colorado State. Different universities.
You’ve got to be kidding me-it’s so trrnapsaently clear now!
Toni, I wish Lukas the best. He’s certainly talented enough to make a living in either sport. That said, he may actually have a tougher road to hoe than in athletics. As the last high level US Jr from the Int’l distance era, I believe I’m qualified to comment here. Like Lukas’, my swim was always lacking (perhaps moreso than his)….because of that, I always came out too far down to make the lead bike pack, as will Lukas. this will ALWAYS negate his running talents, as making time on (as has been noted) Brownlee(s), Gomez, etc, will be impossible coming off with a 2-3min deficit. Perhaps he is being proactive by moving to Co Sp in order to correct this very deficiency, in which case he DOES have a chance, one that he prob doesn’t in athletics. that said, could he make just as much $ as a “top” american, versus a top (in the world) triathlete….
I do honestly wonder how much Oregon would hold him back, if he continued (to Vin’s chagrin or otherwise) with his triathlon training meshed with his running? I don’t doubt he could have continued to be a top3 guy on his team, even while tackling triathlon workouts each week.
best of luck to him, I must admit that he DOES have more of a shot to be a world beater in triathlon than in athletics.
cheers, Christian Hesch
US Jr Nat’l Champion, 1998, 1999 (triathlon)
I think your post is thoughtful, but the subtext that many are picking up on is that the East African domination is discouraging to American runners. I may be only nitpicking, but you spent time discussing how it was a blow that Lukas V left Oregon as a back drop to the NCAAs being won by a Kenyan. Lukas is a foreigner in America as well, he a Lithuanian citizen and not an American.
Yet I understand. I am an Black American runner who, though I cheer for all, find it disturbing that the perception is that people who look like me can only jump and run fast. I am stereotyping, but the average Black American looks quite different than an East African. At any rate, I am a new fan and am discovering other fans of endurance racing all the time.
Nice article from Western perspective, I have been following your article. One thing is for sure there is a problem, what is the solution. ‘The cost of production plays a great role’ if this sport can produce the best product at the lowest cost then why try west where the cost is too high. For someone who have seen both the systems( I ran for D I school and originally from Kenya) I can only say that this is about to get ugly. For every one world record youths in 100s join the sport in East Africa and the same margin lead by LV give up the sport.
You’re close but not quite seeing what is happening. A lot of the comments were about Africans but the real issue here is the rise of for profit companies that stage ‘events’, not races. It’s about making a big profit, period.
More and more races are big events where the goal is to get gangs of wannabe runners (and fat people pretending to run) to pay high fees to ‘participate’ (walk, stagger, etc. and get a medal for having ‘run’ the event).
They schedule these events and they suck away enough participants to kill most real races.
It’s all about money folks….
Kiss competitive running in the US good bye. All for profit.
I got one word for you: Biathlon! Not that you Americans care about cross country skiing, but you should, because the answer to the running sport’s problem is the same as CCS kinda had and to some extent still has, the Scandinavians are generally so dominant that the rest of Europe added a rifle and “migrated” to Biathlon, which is now more popular in Germany (the biggest market) than CCS ever was, and generates more prize money, air time and general exposure for skiiers.
So all you have to do is to add a rifle, maybe get the NRA to sponsor, and create a new type of running competition, then the white runners will flock into it.
PS. Not getting into the finer points here for those of you that never heard about it but the most important thing about Biathlon is that at most races the front runners frequently change, it doesn’t matter if you have a full minute lead at 5K if you can’t calm down your pulse quickly enough to shoot straight, and if not suddenly you find yourself leaving the stadium a chaser rather than the chased.
Besides, you Americans love your guns, how come you’re not dominating the Biathlon itself already?
european athletes have thrown in the towel as regards the world xc championships
their main focus now is the european xc champs where they don’t have to compete against the africans..game over
Toni, a nice article which always generates a lot of discussion because it has so much different angles to look at the problem: diminishing of distancerunning as a sport. I completely agree with your point of dividing the sport and the activity of running. I love the sport and earn my living with the activity, so I’m not negative against any of the parts of the running society.
The lack of non-east African countries being competitive on a global scale affects the sport in media attention. Somehow things have to change to make sure distance running won’t disappear from the radar and becomes some kind of triathlon or track-cycling (that are even broadcasted less on international scale).
One of the biggest issues is the lack of competitive westerners to bring back attention. Ryan Hall is one of the few who brought additional media coverage to distance running (as did Lemaitre to t&f). So the federations or other organizations need to set up opportunities to develop young runners to competitive stars at global level and make distance running a sport again.
In the USA however this is more easy than in Europe. At first, the high-school system and NCAA provides a good level of competitive race year around where the best American runners can compete on xc and t&f considered broadly as the base for a successful career.
Secondly, there’s already a system of ‘professional’ teams where recent-grads can find an environment to develop there skills to take the next step. In the USA, major roadraces like Houston and the NYRR have seen the lack of US-runners is a threat to their event. RUSA did quite the same (I’m not 100% on top of this) but they provided funds for teams to develop a new generation of runners. Problem is however the lacking capacity, because there aren’t enough free spots in those teams every year. If that could be solved, that would help a lot. A broad base is a better ground to get a top level competitor.
On the other hand is the lack of good competitions in the USA to develop those athletes to the next step. There are some good races, but why to few for the amount of good athletes in the USA. Last year Flotrack had a nice interview with a meet organizer on this issue: (http://www.flotrack.org/coverage/238919-Harry-Jerome-International-Track-Classic-2011/video/498775-Doug-Clement-talks-about-setting-up-new-meets-in-United-States)
Where American distance runners travel to Europe to get in some competitive races (some organizers are actually holding back to be overcrowded by Americans who take over the meet, like happened in Brasschaat, Belgium. After Webb’s AR it became an American meet that detered local athletes, sponsors and the local club and is now gone). Even European Athletics had a memorandum on this: (http://www.european-athletics.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=8655&Itemid=2). My point on this is that the balance in events has to be good, in order not to cut yourself in your fingers. Those events should be spread wide across the country to diminish traveling costs.
In Europe the situation is quite different. The club based system and the borders between countries don’t help a lot to develop distance runners. In my country (The Netherlands), most clubs are eager to hold their talents instead of let them train together. Traveling distances aren’t a real problem (just in mind), but most clubcoaches are a bit too selfish in my opinion. Luckily our federation tries to tear downs those walls by organizing training sessions and by monitoring talents, but what’s going on in former powerhouses like Spain, Portugal, Italy is not to my knowledge.
Second, the club based system has as a disadvantage that the best athletes do meet each other only on a few occassions, in the better national meets or some European events. When they do get to the international level, they’re often overwhelmed by their (African) opponents, especially ’cause they haven’t raced them before.
When athletes reach the next step, national borders can hold the development of national athletes back. The number of sub 29’ 10k runners isn’t very large but because of the borders they don’t meet each other outside competitions to train together. Just in their summercamps in St. Moritz or Font Romeu are even in Kenya they have the chance to meet other Europeans. Whereas American athletes transfer to Eugene, Flagstaff , etc more easily. I think, on behalf of their interest of developing the sport national federations and European Athletics should take more action in creating possibilities to get this sort of elaboration.
In order to revive the sport of distance running, the chicken or the egg mystery in my opinion, has to be solved by creating facilities for distance runners to get in touch with the leaders. In order to beat them, you’ll have to run with them, like Meb and Ryan did on severall occasions.
You hit the nail on the head. we’ve been aware of the commercialization of our sport for many years, ever since this group starting the Rock N’ Roll series. As a coach for many years and follower of our sport, we have been aware of this for some time. I won’t send people to the Elite Racing events because I don’t think they are run that well. I was left on the course for 2 hours with hyponatremia in 2001 at San Diego. I was sick as a dog and couldn’t get anybody to take me off the course. Others have had similar experiences.
We started producing our own races here in Fort Worth and charge $10 for all our races because we’re sick of these races that overcharge and underproduce.
On a side note, we always are glad when you are a commentator since you have been involved for so many years. You always bring in the best commentary. Glad to have you in the sport.
Toni…I have been in this sport both as a coach athlete and founder of a running club with 350 members strong and have watched on every level for years the deterioration.Very sad situation.
YOU HIT IT DEAD ON TONI
AND THANK YOU FOR ADDING
SOME REAL STRONG CREDIBILITY
WHICH I HAVE BEEN PREACHING
FOR YEARS.Have enjoyed your
commenting for years Toni
I was having difficulty replying in your site, as well. That limit of 500 characters to reply doesn’t encourage serious engagement. But thanks for writing over here.
First, I never want to blame Kenyan runners for anything. None of this is their fault. They have been asked to do nothing but run fast from Point A to Point B, which they have done to a fair-thee-well. Who I blame are the events, sport, and even managers for not encouraging, or requiring these athletes to engage in media training to better equip them to handle the very necessary ancillary work that comes from being a professional athlete. I know it isn’t part of their culture or inclination. But guess what, they aren’t winning money in their culture. They are winning it here. And here, you need to be able to articulate your experiences. When you don’t, people can’t relate, ergo, they pay no attention. Over time people come to consider running boring, as the same model is repeated ad infinitum. Well, it isn’t boring, it’s just poorly staged and poorly promoted.
Problem is, with every event a universe unto itself, none individually sees the need to require such media training. What’s more, no agent gives lessons to their athletes, and there is no disincentive for continuing the, at times, painful silences that can attend press outings. That is deeply destructive to the marketing of the sport.
These are friends of mine. I wish them well. But we need to come together to correct the short-comings that hold back the sporting aspect of running. “The Sport” has allowed itself to mature in a totally unstructured, unregulated manner which strips the sport of the possibility of a fan base. You said it, “a sport whose structure is highly fragmented.”
When every athlete is an independent contractor, and every event is a stand-alone with no connection to any other event, there is nothing to follow. Everythng is one-and-done. Nobody gets to know who the athletes are, and so it devolves into anonymous, interchangable parts who run fast, but don’t resonate at a personal level with a fan base.
It’s as if the PGA Tour had no requirements for attaining playing privileges. Anyone could play in any tourney, and wouldn’t have to engage the press if they didn’t want to. Our sport has stagnated because we haven’t cohered around a competitive structure into which athletes are slotted, be they Kenyan, American or otherwise. People don’t follow it, because it hasn’t been structured to be followed.
I walked through the Chicago Marathon expo asking random bib-holding runners if they could name one athlete in the field or any past champion. Two said Ryan Hall. I must have asked 40. Totally disengaged from professional wing of the sport.
A healthy sport to me is a fine balance and interchange between the participants and the stars, who then inspire them and kids who want to emulate them – which, by the way, happens at a tremendous rate in East Africa. What’s more, with the current health crisis in this country, elevating runners/triathletes to star status helps generate interest in the sports at a younger age, rather than waiting till gravity begins to get a hold of them in their early 30s, which is the normal running start time
From the inception of Sports Illustrated, 1954, to it’s 50th anniversary,100 track athletes graced the cover (2 per year average). Bill Rodgers made the cover twice for winning the NYC Marathon. Running and track was part of the national sporting conversation. Then, as the rest of the sports world continued to market and promote themselves, running didn’t, and thus we began to get left behind. Until Usain Bolt was on the cover of SI in 2009 for his World Champs exploits in Berlin, no runner had been on the cover in a decade!
Peter, I’ve lived this sport for over 30 years. This isn’t a new treatise. It’s an old, sad song.
Toni, I’ll reply here because (somewhat incredibly) I’m having trouble replying on my own blog. Your comment:
“You write, “and more people are running and entering races in the United States than ever before”. True, but that has nothing to do with the “Sport” of running. What you describe is the “Activity” of running. And there is a huge gulf between the two. The citizen “Activity” runners aren’t connected as fans with the “Sport” racers at all. That isn’t healthy.”
That’s certainly the perception. But you’re making an assumption about the nature of this gulf and the reasons for its existence. I’m more inclined to think that we’re dealing with a crowded sports-media market and a sport whose structure is highly fragmented. I think many of those activity runners are indeed engaged in the sport, but they get their information from less caustic outlets than letsrun.
Here’s a test example: The “sport” of triathlon is dominated by Europeans and Australians. Its participation numbers are jumping through the roof. Is it doing well as a sport, by your definition? Maybe the better question is ‘What does a healthy sport look like to you?’ Would you rather see Brett Gotcher on the cover of Sports Illustrated than see a 2:03 world record and New York draw 47,000 runners?
I might be worried if Americans were quitting instead of stepping up, but they’re clearly stepping up. In light of someone like Jenny Barringer, Verzbicas seems like an aberration. (I also think he’s made a poor assessment of his own prospects. He took Andy Baddely to the line 7 months ago. If he wanted to contend as a runner on the international stage, he could.)
I think blaming Kenyans for ruining the sport of running at the same time they are elevating it to an incredibly high level is a mistake. It’s terribly unfair to those runners and it further alienates “activity” people who might become interested.
No problem on reply length. It was well considered and thoughtful. As to women’s distance running: the opportunities are simply not on par with men in East Africa at present, though that, too, is changing. The push by families for girls to marry and produce children remains strong, and that is a major factor why Kenyan women do not dominate at the depth the men do on the world stage. Given the freedom, they most certainly would. At present, of the Top 20 women’s marathon times of 2011, Ethiopia has 8, Kenya 7, Russia 2 (both, including #1, by Lydia Shobukhova), Germany 1, and Sweden 1 (though that is by Kenyan-born Isabellah Anderson). Unfortunately, Boston’s times are inot included, so Desi Davila is not counted, though she would have been top 10 with her runner-up finish at Boston. But with less depth coming out of East Africa, the other women of the world feel they have a chance. That feeling must be fleeting for the men.
First, I apologize for the long post.
I am of two minds about this discussion. One question lurking behind the conclusions here is, “Can an international sport be ‘healthy’ if it isn’t popular in the U.S. or Europe? Can it still matter?” I’d like to think the answer is “yes.” I take the author’s points about reduced prize money and the IAAF’s decision to have the World Cross less often. But does that mean the sport itself will atrophy? Will Kenyans and Ethiopians stop running over time if the amount of money goes down? Will they stop competing? Maybe I’m naive, but it’s hard for me to see that. So I’m not convinced that there will be a decline in the competitive level of the sport.
Having said that, I agree that support for distance running as a competitive sport (as opposed to a participatory activity) in the U.S. is weak. Pick up any issue of Runner’s World, and you’re likely to see on the cover not the top American distance runners (with a few exceptions: Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan), but an attractive, 20-30 something, usually female, fitness or pleasure runner. Not the demographic that’s likely to generate a surge of world-class prospects. The U.S. needs to make a commitment to attracting and developing young runners, but there are certainly some cultural obstacles. The average American sees baseball or basketball or football or even soccer as sports requiring high levels of skill. But I suspect the average American sees distance running as either a punishment, an unpleasant chore to maintain health, or the domain of genetic freaks. They have little sense of the history of the sport beyond a few iconic American names. Mention Nuurmi or Zatopek or Bikila or even an American like Billy Mills and I suspect you’d get blank stares, even among many who swell the ranks of the mega-road races these days. I don’t think the fan base in the U.S. for competitive distance running is that great even among many who participate in road races. Running seems to lack many of the qualities that Americans seem to value in sports. I also think that, though it isn’t part of your equation, social class and race are factors. American distance runners as a group project an image of predominantly white, middle-to-upper class, college kids. I know that image is reductive, but I think it *is* the image. Outside of golf and, to a lesser extent tennis, I don’t know of a major sport in which that athlete pool dominates the competitors; and those sports have a back-and-forth action and point-scoring that appeals, I think, more to American fan sensibilities. My point is, I’m not sure what can be *done* about this situation. Who’s going to invest in the sport without a significant base of fans who care about it as a competitive event? I say all this as a rabid distance running fan. I listen to the World Championships on the BBC radio’s streaming coverage, and I watch the major marathons where ever I can find them streaming on my computer as well. I was screaming at the computer as I watched Wanjiru and Kebede battle in the 2010 Chicago Marathon. If watching that finish didn’t turn Americans into distance running fans, I’m not sure anything will.
One other note: How well does your conclusion apply to women’s distance running. East African domination in women’s distance running is much less. Women from other parts of the world are quite competitive. Does the same dynamic apply?
I was thinking (hoping) that we shared much more than we differed. Both of us are passionate about sport, and in many ways this should be win-win, not zero sum. How can we improve the lot of both running and triathlon in this country? That should be our goal. And perhaps we should try working together toward reaching that horizon. And I was only throwing out the line “young Lukas has instead decided to throw in with a hybrid-sport that began as a bar bet in Hawaii in May 1979” to stick in running’s craw, not disparage triathlon. Remember, the name Nike, Inc. wasn’t adopted until 1978,and it didn’t go public till 1980. Many grand things can happen in a relatively short amount of time. But people have to be passionate and diligent. Happy holidays to you.
Very interesting comments. This is a great article Toni:
Thanks for the reply, I mostly agree and also share your frustration. I much prefer your new wording:
“mine isn’t a negative view of triathlon at all, merely a desire for running to begin challenging itself to improve.”
To the one from your other article 🙂
“… instead of embracing one of the most prestigious distance programs in the nation, learning from one of its most respected coaches – before going on (one would assume) to a long pro career – young Lukas has instead decided to throw in with a hybrid-sport that began as a bar bet in Hawaii in May 1979.”
Running is trying to steal kids from triathlon and not the other way around. Like you say, the US is deeply lagging in the triathlon rankings against other countries though it hasn’t always been that way. This time (in contrast with running history) it just might come around full circle. Now, a novel challenge could perhaps be for running coaches to start looking at what triathlon kids are doing for training? Tri-kids are NOT supposed to be winning those races on 20 miles/week, regardless of their DNA.
Thanks for the passionate reply. I did not mean to suggest in my story that the mountain Lukas will have to climb in triathlon isn’t high. Of course it is. Rather I meant to show that the triathlon mountain had a wider base made up of many different elements – as you point out, “UK Brownlee brothers (Alistair and Jonathan) and the Spaniard Javier Gomez” top the Dextro Energy Triathlon ITU World Championship Series Rankings 2011 – while running, though higher, is much more narrow. Further, triathlon is doing a better job in making itself an attractive choice to today’s endurance athletes.
A deeper dive into those ITU rankings shows athletes from six nations in the top 10, five from European countries. No American or African is ranked in the top 20 in 2011. The top American, Dan Chrabot, is ranked No. 42. The top African is Richard Murray from South Africa in 63rd. No athlete from East Africa is ranked in the top 144. This diversity in participation would mirror (minus the total lack of East Africans) what the running world top lists looked like in the 1970s and `80s.
Now go to the 2011 IAAF list of top running performances. First of all, running doesn’t even have an official rankings like triathlon, much less a sponsored one – again, another point in triathlon’s favor. Notwithstanding, in the marathon for 2011, there is only one country represented in top 20, Kenya. In fact, the fastest 24 performances of the year were run by Kenyans. In the half-marathon Kenya only holds 11 of the top 20 positions, while Ethiopia has 8, and Eritrea 1. In the 10,000m, Kenya represents 13 of the top 20, Ethiopia 4, Eritrea, England, and USA one each. 73% of the year’s top distance performances were run by Kenyans, 96% by East Africans, and 98% by runners of East African birth. This is total domination by one geographic area.
My worry, in the light of these stark comparisons, is that running isn’t doing enough to develop a more well-rounded elite participation when compared to the efforts being made by sports like triathlon which are still relatively new and full of energy. Running has had the field to itself for many decades, and acts as if that is settled law.
Plus, it was Lukas’ own words to Phil Hersch at the Chicago Tribune – “Maybe I could be the best in the nation,” he said. “I don’t know how I will feel later, but I can’t see myself now running a 2:03 marathon or a 12:35 for 5,000, which is what it would take to be the top world level.” – which, at least in part, was a contributing factor in his decision to focus on triathlon. Mine isn’t a negative view of triathlon at all, merely a desire for running to begin challenging itself to improve. Notwithstanding, I look forward to following Lukas and Tony S in their future exploits, regardless the sports they choose.
This article really misses the point. I’ve been following Lucas V since he was 15 years old. His goal from very early on was Triathlon Gold at the 2016 Olympics.
The problem… Lucas managed to become the fastest kid runner in America on very little running millage. He hit the limelight not in the sport he was training for but by winning Footlocker twice and breaking the elusive 4 minute mile while still underage. Some quickly attributed that to running genetic freakishness (similar to Lance, who was a triathlete with particular cycling ability who could not keep up with Mark Allen et Al on all three sports and changed careers..) and since he wasn’t fully developed in triathlon (not the top US kid) was pressured into entering the running “mecca”: U. Oregon.
Problem was…. Lucas close friend who also happened to be the top US kid triathlete got Leukemia and Lucas decided to step in for him at the Junior Triathlon World Championship in Beijing this Summer. And Lucas won it.
XC college was only a couple of months after that and for obvious reasons (see above) he could not keep up. Lalang has amazing talent, but so does Lucas and a bunch of other kids.
Besides great genes, what Lalang has in common with Verbzicas is that they were NOT part of the US kids running program. And the key lies right there. If Lucas was training exclusively for running using the same techniques that he used for triathlon which happen to be shared by Kenyan kids (slowly developing a huge aerobic base…) he would most likely have been in front along with Lalang. Look at Ryan Hall’s, arguably the top US distance runner, his dad (and coach) was a kinesiologist triathlon geek obsessed with form and heart rate monitors. Ryan’s unorthodox arm carriage was the product of some tinkering by his dad who used to monitor his kid’s HR by riding a bike next to him. Ryan was pissed at his dad at the time: “‘Dad, I need to elevate my hands. Look at everybody else!’”
Comparing genes here is big time BS! and a huge Cop Out. Writing that “So off he swam /biked to triathlon where no such competition awaited.” is just atrocious. I dare this guy to go check out the splits of the UK Brownlee brothers, the Spaniard Javier Gomez and write that again… There is a huge mountain still ahead of Lucas and that comment is arrogant, ignorant and insulting.
Blaming genes here is simply ridiculous. Want more proof, here:
Tony S., The “other” Junior:
“Tony Smoragiewicz is not America’s fastest returning American high school runner, as Lukas Verzbicas was coming into his final year of high school.
Tony S is merely America’s third fastest returner.
This, according to Milesplit.com’s preseason rankings. As of this writing, he sits #3 in Dyestat’s national pollas well. At least in the case of Lukas V and Tony S, triathlon isn’t harvesting the crop of talented single-sporters. It’s the running world scratching its head, wondering how jacks-of-all-trades got so fast afoot.”
Great to hear from Nancy and Jason, two of Canada’s finest. NancyTinari was the silver-medallist at 1987 Womens World Road Racing Championship (15k) in Monaco, and a member of the 1988 Canadian Olympic 10,000m team. I followed Nancy’s exploits closely in her battles on the U.S. roads in the 80s and 90s.
Jason, my observations are only how the excellence of the East Africans is being assimilated by the sport ( or not). It’s not their fault they are so good, and work so hard. I just think the competitive model needs expanding, as rooting for any individual hasn’t seemed to take hold over an extended period of time.
I suspect Hail Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat were the only two Africans who came close to breaking into public consciousness. And that’s because they competed against one another for a long time, held two classic Olympic duels and traded world records on the track and marathon for over a decade. The athletes today have a much shorter competitive half-life, and that makes it doubly difficult to market them as they come and go so quickly.
We need a broader context than ‘That Mutai’ versus ‘The Other Mutai’ (nothing against either Mutai) with which to frame our competitions. Excellence for excellence sake is a fine attribute, but it isn’t compelling enough to break through the atmosphere of the sport itself into the broader culture. There has to be some visceral tie-in. People in Canada rooted for you. Now the sport seems to be a Kenyan-Ethiopian duel meet with every game an away game for both. There’s no home team to root for. So the races are more a series if academic exercises than anything. They are fast physically, but flaccid emotionally.
So how to broaden the context to grow the audience? In L.A. Marathon we stage a Gender Challenge, men chasing women for a $100k bonus. And that seems to work to some degree. With that format it doesn’t matter who the man or woman is. Men root for the guy, women for the woman.
It is a long-standing, and in my mind, debilitating short-coming of the current racing model, this lack of individual personalities or rivalries. Let’s not eliminate the East Africans. Instead let’s incorporate them into a larger competitive model. The question is, how and what?
I haven’t read all of the comments here but I will throw in my personal experiences with the ‘destabilizing’ effect that competition with (East) africans has on N. American runners.
Since much of the discussion can be speculative I’ll offer what I know and experienced.
I was one of the dominant Junior athletes in Ontario at the end of 1988 (16/17 1:52/3:50/8:29).I was running well but at the top of my game for my region and age bracket, I was heading into a period of uncontested dominance. Not a great place to be if you are looking to really improve. Right after that, three Somali juniors claimed refugee status after the WJ Champs in Sudbury and settled in and around Toronto, meaning I’d be racing some or all of them if they ran HS Senior category 1988/89. They did. I notched my first-ever and only top 4 finish in an OFSAA provincial championship (I was either first or second 1986-1990). They clearly raised the bar for us, and they were good enough to run Senior/Open, but slow enough for us to race but be beaten regularly. By the next Spring, 4-6 OFSAA ontario grown Senior men’s runners (18-19 years of age) were suddenly sunning anywhere between 3:49-3:52 and 8:20-8:30 early season. Add the Somali runners and it was suddenly a horserace! By that spring we were starting to beat these guys, but we had gotten *faster*, and they did too. The OFSAA Senior men’s 3k that year saw a 4:19/4:01 negative split, with the Somali runners finishing 3rd or lower. That summer of 1989 I reached top-10 in WJ rankings in the 5000m. I might not have done so if the bar hadn’t been set higher by our African friends. By 1990 I was top ten in the world over 1500m and 5000m. It helped that I had a massively competitive training partner in Graham Hood, but the competitive partners I had were equally important. We were world ready **because** of these guys.
When I was at Arkansas from 1992-1996 I had many, MANY great running partners. However it was considered verboten to needlessly push the pace on long runs. I found that this “rule” went out the door when Godfrey Siamusiye arrived in the Spring of 1995. He was african, and people seemed to be “ok” with him taking everyday long runs out hard…he would be 100m ahead by the first mile, and people would let him go off alone! So I found my “out” and went with the african. It also helped that Godfrey was there to run, and run hard. So was I and I no longer had to hear the “excuse” that running our front meant being antisocial. My stagnant 1994-95 year was replaced by a banner 1996-97 run of major PBs, and three national records.
Each of these periods was marked by extensive race experience against east/central african athletes who simply ran naturally hard, in workout and race. It never mattered that I finished second a lot…that was the point. Finish second and hard, rather than first and rested. That African runners dominate should be a challenge to try to beat them.
Lastly, I ran one good 5k in Sweden in 1997…I was one of two token white runners to “balance” the field. I ran 13:25 for second there, holding back a little more than I had hoped since Gebrselassie ran his 12:59 5k record in that race, we were almost lapped. I was immediately offered a lane for the summer’s DN Gala 5k (if fit) for my good run. They like my aggressive tack on that race despite the number of kenyans also running. White kids vs Africans again.
I always found it puzzling that they needed to “balance” the race with white and black runners. I realize it’s because the Africans were largely nameless to Westerners. Maybe it’s time we treated them as runners? They are good. We can be too, it our priorities are like theirs. If we can’t churn out the numbers then fine.
We have more bankers, perhaps we can console ourselves with that 😉
Excellent points Jason, I agree, thanks for that contribution.
Toni–my apologies for misspelling your name.
I enjoyed your excellent writing and provocative points, Tony,
I agree it’s troubling to see World Cross dropped to a once-every-two-years event. I was also shocked to read about CGI’s policy of inviting and paying appearance money for ONE male and female elite athlete. What a mockery of competition! Too bad if the local press doesn’t recognize this policy and question it.
There’s little doubt it’s difficult for runners to compete against the East Africans. I’m not sure what the answer is. I think some North American and European athletes train as hard as the Africans, but are they willing to make certain lifestyle choices as well? Should national federations and local businesses support their “own” athletes more? Should races have separate prize money for their own country’s athletes or local athletes? I know race directors have been struggling with these questions for a long time.
Professional Sports; Football, Soccer etc.
Driven by: Worldwide Television Coverage which generates commercials, sponsors. Creates wealthy, identifiable Superstars/Heroes/Role Models, Fantasy leagues, etc. Big ($X,000,000) Financial winners are all of the above.
Track and Field
Driven by: Olympics (every 4th year), World Champs; Diamond League; Worldwide Television Coverage which generates commercials, sponsors. Creates some identifiable Superstars/Heroes/Role Models. Big ($X,000,000) Financial winners are TV Network, IOC, USOC, Sponsors, Usain Bolt.
Running – Marathon/Road
Driven by: Participation/Fees; local sponsorships; human interest stories; local TV coverage. Big ($X,000,000) Financial Winners are Charities.
Running -Marathon/Road SWOT’S
Strengths – Participation growing with wealthy demographic. Healthy nature of participation.
Weaknesses – Local nature of events; lack of organized National/Global scheduling; Non-recognizable;ever changing superstars. Financial rewards/prize money not significant relative to other sports. Events becoming participant driven rather than sport (competition) driven.
Cooperation of events + Professionalization (one voice) of Athletes; = More TV/Sponsor interest.
Threats – All other Major professionally managed Sports. Events becoming participant driven rather than sport (competition) driven subsequent reduced Prize structures etc.
The Questions Are: Can Events cooperate? and Can Athletes get organized?
Thanks for the breakdown, Mike. Again, for the uninitiated, Mike Roche was a Rutgers All-American, `76 Olympic steepler, `78 Peachtree Road Race champion, shoe company exec, store owner. Vast background in the sport with attendant viewpoint.
Read Thom Hunt’s reply above. He noted the lack of Euopean team participation in Edinburgh for World Cross Country. And I believe it’s fairly well accepted that the IAAF recognizes the reason for European absence as East African domination. That’s why they’ve cut World Cross down to once-every-two-years instead of the annual Championships. Europeans figure, why spend the money to field a team if you know what’s going to happen?
Also, I believe there are fewer 10,000s because they already know what the result will be there, too. And there is less money going to the very best, because the very best come from less costly, yet more competitive labor pools. Accordingly, for those athletes from nations with a higher cost of living, like Team USA Minnesota’s Matt Gabrielson, fewer and fewer are able to sustain the effort necessary to reach their full potential. Next, without heroes to emulate, fewer and fewer youngsters dream of a career in the sport, and instead choose another direction. Thus is the sport, over time, whittled down/
Distance running is a numbers game which requires time and patience to develop. Just like it takes something around seven years to build your aerobic house as a runner, so too does it require time to build distance running excellence. Therefore, what is required is a long-range support mechanism which understands that results will not come as quickly as those shown by Lawi Lalang at the NCAA XC Champs today.
This is where national governing bodies are supposed to earn their keep, developing the sport. Like American Youth Soccer once had a grand plan to develop the next generation of American soccer players who could compete at the world level, so must we have a NGB with the wits about them and the dedication to develop T&F in the U.S. as a viable sport.
USATF Foundation has made some solid inroads, but they are a separate body from USATF, itself. Running USA was begun in 1999 to take on the task of developing U.S. distance runners, but after the success of Deena Kastor and Meb Keflizighi in Athens 2004, RUSA morphed into an industry tub-thumper and largely withdrew from developing athletes. It will require multiple channels of dedicated professionals who see in running and track a sport which contains the building blocks of all sports, and which can help turn the American epidemic of poor health around. It won’t be easy. What about distance running is?
Toni, you infer teams aren’t entering the World Cross meet due to the dominance of the East Africans. Have you spoken w/affected folks to back this up? Also, I don’t see more 10,000 meter opportunities as helping Americans; if there are more, highly unlikely there’ll room in the race for any more Americans than currently qualify. In other words, not enough Americans are fast enough to get in. Per less prize/appearance money @ races…yeah, I’ve noted that too. Whatever the reason, keeping the same amounts or more won’t aid American running. That money is getting snapped up by non-Americans. Still, I’m curious why there’s been less money to the very best…
Project 5 years from now to the ’16 Olympic Games time period – if anything, even more East Africans will be taking top spots in races & dominating the rankings. Will, as you note, our governing body do anything/more to enhance American opportunities? In part, I think so, but not enough to make much of a dent in the whirlwind that’s Ethiopian & Kenyan running. Should we make the attempt anyway – by all means, HECK YES! If we aren’t striving to be better, we’re getting what we asked for. How to make a difference? The ‘solution’ hasn’t crytalized in my mind but it needs doing.
How to help these non Africans runners then?
Please read: blog from Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier Matt Gabrielson, a member of Team USA Minnesota.
Agree w/ Toni. African runners are dominant in all events, starting from 800m. I don’t want to say that I don’t like that, but I think that it’s discouraging for non African runners.
…..but there is nothing we can change. Z
Thanks for chiming in. For those who may have forgotton, Thom Hunt was one of America’s best of the `70s-`80s. He set the national high school record in the indoor mile in 1976 (4:02.7) which lasted until Alan Webb took it down with a sub-4 in 2001. As a freshman at the University of Arizona (the school today’s NCAA XC champion Lawi Lalang attends), Thom won the Junior International Cross Country title. He was also a seven-time NCAA All-American, and at one time held the U.S. road 10K record at 28:12. Today he is the successful cross country coach at San Diego’s Mesa College.
And, yes, Thom, as you say, we have many, many Kenyan and Ethiopian friends. That isn’t what this about at all. It’s about the consequence of their domination on the sport, and how we might find a way to combat that for the benefit of everyone, including our friends in East Africa.
World records aren’t all that are tumbling. And while you, and many others, celebrate those achievements, organizations like the IAAF, the Diamond League, and Competitor Group alter their schedules and diminish distance racing opportunities and prize purses. Why? Well,in part, due to the dominance that is evident and ongoing. So notwithstanding your appreciation, those reductions are worth pointing out as being consequential to the current and future standing of the sport. Don’t shoot the messenger, now.
Toni – great post today. When I was coaching the world XC team in Edinburgh, a huge number of European teams didn’t even bother to send a men’s team on the short flight over to the meet including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Finland and Russia – all distance powers at one time. This has become politically incorrect to talk about, but I’m glad you have the courage to bring it up. 100% on target. This is not about who we like winning the race, you and I both have many African runners we list as friends. This is not definitely not about race, who cares that the athletes are black. What is has to do with is a lack of competition. The European distance runners have basically given up. Why is this important? Because Europe is the center of our sport and where most of the major competitions and most of the money lie. Yes, Ryan Hall is doing a brilliant job, but was still almost 2 minutes behind in Boston. More important, how many Americans are within 10 minutes (2 miles in a major marathon!) of the top Africans? Only a very few. The Americans are at least supported by American prize money at our national championships. But how many 2:10 to 2:15 runners are going to quit running because they are considered inferior? It can take time to develop into this level of a runner and I believe far too many good athletes from around the world are not able to develop their talents because who is going to support them?
Exactly, Ralph Havens. The author needs to ask himself exactly why he and others don’t like the Africans winning.
In many ways we are in a golden age of marathon running with course records being broken at every major this year, and world records tumbling. Celebrate that, rather than complain that all the winners are black.
I love the East Africans, personally. And I enjoy the races immensely. I’m not the audience I’m worried about. What I’m pointing out, and to answer your question: Yes,it does matter when evidence of domination shows up in a lessening of the sport. And that evidence is obvious in World Cross alone when the IAAF reduces the number of races, then the annual scheduling of the event, itself. How is that not troubling? What’s more, how exactly do you see us uncovering the next Shorter, Lindgren, or Pre when kids aren’t pulled into the sport, because, like Verzbicas, they don’t see any chance of winning? Again, I don’t see this as whining, merely observation. In any case, thanks for reading and responding. And yes, indeed, let’s do see who wins the marathon in London 2012. I know at least two interested watchers.
my take on this is quit whinning and enjoy the runners and races. Does it matter if most winners are East African? it doesn’t to me. And I don’t buy it anyway. We have some runners who aren’t complaining about East African runners but are instead just training and having fun like Ryan Hall, Galan Rupp, and others. I love watching the East Africans and I loved watching Meb race them at NYC. If our runners love running and racing we’ll see emergence of the next Frank Shorter, or Gerry LIndgren or Steve Pre. Heck I think Ryan Hall is right up there! let’s see who wins London olympic 2012 marathon!