Elegance: Wilson Kipketer

How many times have you watched a race and thought, “Boy, was he/she born to run?”, thereby giving voice to the emotional power released by the human form in fully articulated flight.  Without knowing why or how, we all understand and appreciate at a visceral level the aesthetic that attends athletic excellence, an aesthetic which goes beyond simple results-oriented efficiency or effectiveness, and instead inhabits an expressive gestalt all its own.

We have all had our favorite such stylists.  One of mine was the great Kenyan-born Dane Wilson Kipketer, the former 800-meter world record holder whose rapier-like form cut so cleanly though the pliant pocket of air.  Another beauty was 1987 world 10,000-meter champion, the late Paul Kipkoech of Kenya, who I called “The Ambassador” for his carriage brought to mind white tie and tails, so elegant was his pure upright form.

Though athletes can improve form and function through plyometric drills and gym-work, most of how we generate force over distance comes from our physical conformation, how we are put together in this system of pulleys and levers via the hard and soft tissue of the body.

In the world of horse racing, millions of dollars are invested in the breeding for physical conformation.  But as the undervalued (purchased for $35,000) I’ll Have Another goes for the first Triple Crown title in 34 years at the Belmont Stakes next week, we are reminded again that more than physical conformation goes into the creation of a champion.  Beyond the talent of the form is the drive from the heart, the unquantifiable aspects of an athlete’s makeup which defy programmatic identification – think Tim Tebow in American football.

In an on-line blog about the Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete, an old, but not forgotten name from running’s past surfaced last fall in the comments section of Calvin Carter’s Classic Thoroughbred Champions.

For those newer to the sport of running, Bob Bright directed the Chicago Marathon from 1982 to 1988, during the years in which the conglomerate Beatrice Foods funded the marathon’s growth from a regional event to international class status. With Beatrice money in hand, Bright travelled the world recruiting stars like Steve Jones, Rob de Castella, Carlos Lopes, Joan Samuelson, Ingrid Kristiansen, Toshihiko Seko, Rosa Mota, and more. Bright’s athlete recruiting battles with New York City Marathon president Fred Lebow became the stuff of legend, and were covered extensively in even non-running publications.  In many ways, the sport of road running reached its highest acclaim in those mid-1980s Bright-Lebow years (though participation lagged well behind today’s jogathon world).

Bright disappeared from the running scene in the early 1990s after Beatrice Foods pulled its sponsorship from Chicago in the late 1980s, and Bright was let go by Chicago Marathon founder Lee Flaherty for serial expense report malfeasance. In the absence of Bright and a major sponsor, Chicago sank back to regional-class status before Carey Pinkowski took over and lovingly restored Chicago’s broad-shouldered reputation after nearly a decade of retrenchment.

In the meantime, Bright hadn’t been seen or heard from until Jim Dunaway, the renowned Olympic and Track and Field News writer, located him in a small Arizona border town where Bright keeps a small ranch.  So long has Bright been out of the sport, that his image doesn’t even show up on a Google search (at least not the Bob Bright I knew).


In his day Bright trained, raced, and recruited runners on both two and four legs.  He twice raced the Iditarod sled-dog race, the famed 1100+ mile trek from Anchorage to Nome.   He also trained thoroughbred horses in New York in the days before his race director career began at the fabled Midland Run 15k in Far Hills, New Jersey, an event covered in 1980 by Sports Illustrated.

If there is one thing that Bright had in spades, it was an uncanny ability to ascertain the Emotional Conformation of racers. He’s the one who saw in track and cross country runner Steve Jones the potential as a marathon champion.  And the best recruiting job I ever saw in a marathon was Bright’s work in luring Joan Samuelson to the 1985 Chicago Marathon where she dueled with Ingrid Kristiansen to a 2:21:21 win that lasted as the American record until Deena Kastor took it down in London 2003 with her 2:21:15.

“Emotional Conformation is the most important characteristic in all athletes,” wrote Bright on the Classic Champion Thoroughbreds blog. “The majority of horse buyers are not able to ascertain this trait. A horse with perfect confirmation, likewise pedigree but poor emotional conformation, will probably bring a high price and will be untrainable to most.

“There are many human athletes with poor Emotional Conformation who never reach potential as with horses. Emotional Conformation is the most important trait in the making of a champion in any athlete.

“Seabiscuit (considered in horse racing circles as a horse with the highest of emotional confirmation) had a human counterpart when it came to Emotional Conformation,” Bright continued. “Both were short and stumpy, and both were champions, neither had the physical look. The human was the 1984 Olympic Marathon Champion, Joan Benoit. As she went to post Ms. Benoit was the least imposing of the top competition…On a desolate stretch of LA roadway she dialed up a massive dose of Emotional Conformation and ran away from everybody. She could will herself down the road faster than the competition. How many times have we seen a great horse with the will to win. Many like Seabiscuit wouldn’t pass muster in the sales pen.”

As athletes prep for the upcoming Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, we anticipate the exploits of a new generation of champions, most of whom have physical conformation in abundance.  What will separate the men and women who will represent the nation in London at the Olympic Games won’t be their physical, but their emotional conformation.

There are times I wish we still had Bob Bright around to let us know who he thought those new champions might be before they put their wares on display for themselves.



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  3. Maybe Joanie will lend them a dose for Saturday. They are going to need some more. What helps EC is a good turn of foot.

  4. It’s a wonderful phrase for the intangibles of racing. Thanks, Bob. The manner of their victories in Louisville and Baltimore showcased the concept perfectly. Will watch at the Belmont for it to emerge again. Probably will require it.

  5. Toni, I think there is a book there somewhere. I wonder if BB3 would be willing to share at this point. The sport definitely lost some color since his departure.

  6. Great post, Tony and very rapidly becoming my favorite blog. You bring back the memories of the early 80’s I miss so much…I remember first hearing you on a radio program in the Boston area with Patti Catalano on Saturday mornings and I’d sit and listen with crying babies in the background, every word, then go run. Thanks for this and all the years being in the sport.

  7. Only an aficionado of elite running could have written this post–beautifully done! I found it very interesting that Bob Bright had such good intuition about both human and equine racers.

  8. Love this piece Tony. There is such beauty and purity in watching the human form in motion. Was thinking on the very same lines as you watch Jordan Hasay at the Pac 12 Championships recently. Girl is maybe five feet tall and has twice stride and turnover of someone a foot taller (that would be me!)

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