Now that Athletics Kenya has made its Sophie’s Choice for their 2012 Olympic Men’s Marathon team, it seems cruelly unfair that both history’s fastest marathoner, Geoffrey Mutai, and the official world record holder, Patrick Makau, will not be Olympians in London 2012. All of which makes one stop to consider how this wholly unsatisfactory outcome might eventually be corrected.
While competitions on the track are restricted by the availability of lanes, thereby making it necessary to limit competitors to a qualified three-per-nation, the marathon is contested over open road, negating the space restriction argument. Therefore, is it time for the IAAF to lobby for an open marathon format where, if not any qualified athlete can enter, then at least five runners per nation would be fielded with an accompanying team medal formulation added like in World Cross Country?
The New York Road Runners recently posted a Head-to-Head debate between ex-USA Today Olympic writer Dick Patrick and former New York Times Sports editor Neil Amdur on the value of staging a separate half-marathon in the Olympic Games. Neil gave the idea a qualified thumbs up, while Dick replied, “Not so fast, my friend.”
While I might suggest an Olympic Ekiden Relay as a better choice which would include more athletes and be purely team-based, nowhere in Dick and Neil’s back-and-forth was the idea of an Olympic Half Marathon or marathon team medals forwarded for the express purpose of elevating the distinct sport of Road Racing into the pantheon alongside Track & Field via the Olympic imprimatur. Yet as more and more hybrid sports continue to sprout up, more and more of them are finding space on the Olympic schedule, while the very historic and distinct sports of cross country and road racing remain locked out without even an advocacy coming from their governing body.
As someone who began as a road race announcer in Boston during the Running Boom years of the 1970s – but who also loved track, field, and cross country – I have witnessed the withering of our sport over the last decade with a plangent eye as the moveable parades of everyman events have replaced competition as the primary focus of attention.
Besides the utter domination of the East African runners, and the corresponding lack of a marketing arm to promote and advance the sport’s limited personalities, another key reason for the sag in interest in competition has been road racing’s own lack of standing as a distinct sport. In the public mind if you are not in the Olympics, or do not have a professional league backing you, then what are you? Recreation, that’s what, a charity fund-raiser, an economic impact provider. But you are no longer the sun around which the other planets in your system orbit. And with no sun, there is no light, and certainly no heat to radiate out.
And please, do not remind me that the marathon is a road race. Yes, it is run on the roads, but as Craig Virgin, one of America’s all-time great runners on all surfaces, once told me after his debut marathon, “Now I know there are four kinds of competitive foot racing: track, roads, cross country, and the marathon. Once you go over 30 kilometers, you prepare, race, and recover differently than in shorter races.”
We are now nearly two months beyond the March date of what should have been the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. But since the IAAF, in its wisdom, decided to eliminate that once-great annual championship and turn it instead into an every-other-year competition – in large part because many previously attending nations no longer sent teams since there was no hope for any success given the Kenyan-Ethiopian domination – still, we have lost one of the jewels in the sports crown. And cross country used to be an Olympic sport, too, representing part of the “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi’s Olympic cache of medals from the 1920s.
The sport of road racing, like cross country, is deteriorating. The emphasis has shifted to the everyman from the exceptional man. What big money there is in the game isn’t to be found in contracts or prize money, but in charity programs and economic impact to host cities. This year’s Boston Marathon is estimated to have brought $137.5 million into area coffers while the prize purse, among the largest in the world, was less than $1million.
Another primary goal of USATF is to earn medals at the Olympic Games and World Championships. Since there is no Olympic Road Race, road running has never been well-serviced by its NGB. As a result, the sport has taken very deep root at the local-event level while maintaining a certain distance from, and wariness of, its NGB to the detriment of both.
Now ask yourself, what if road racing did have an event at the Olympic level, say the aforementioned Ekiden Relay pitting nations against nations? Or, what if the Olympic Marathon would also award team medals? Imagine how much easier it would be to go into sponsor or TV sales meetings or city planning offices with that stamp of approval in hand. And then how much easier it would be to showcase the sport to an audience.
American runners may not now, nor ever, for that matter, be able to go head-to-head with the Kenyans or Ethiopians. But they have proven the ability to earn team medals when pitted against the world’s best with the occasional individual medal tossed in, as well. Deena, Meb, Shalane, Kara, Dathan, we’ve had our moments.
While there is an annual IAAF World Road Racing Championships (sometimes called the IAAF World Half-Marathon Championship), the fact that road racing, which has tens of millions of adherents across the globe, isn’t included in the Olympic schedule only underscores how unrepresentative the current federation system is on road racing’s behalf.
Road racing is akin to, but not the same as track racing. Though there are many who have shown proficiency at both, we can all identify great runners whose excellence was best exemplified, not on the track at 10,000 meters, nor on the macadam in the marathon. Rather, their wheelhouse was between 12k and 25K, where road racing lives. Herb Lindsay, Mark Curp, and Jon Sinclair on the American side were three such athletes from the previous generation. While the great Kenyan road racer of the mid-1990s Joseph Kimani still holds numerous American road race course records to this day.
If there is a distinction on the track between 100 & 200 meters, 400 & 800m, and 5000 & 10,000m, then there damn well ought to be something between 10,000m on the track & 42,195 meters on the roads. The fact that there is not, is evidence of how taken for granted the sport is by its nominal governing bodies, how robbed it has been of the prestige it and its champions deserve, and how the current state of affairs which has elevated the activity over the sport is no more than a shameful reflection of just that lack of respect the sport of road racing should be, but isn’t, receiving.