SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

People watch foot races for the same reasons they watch other sports: to root for the home team, see how the drama plays out (especially if the stakes are high), and to be inspired by those who do it exceedingly well.  At times, like at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, it is especially riveting when both hearts and minds become entwined in the outcome.  Caring who wins matters.

But over the last generation we have witnessed what was once a robust gathering of eagles from all parts of the globe be winnowed to a very small aerie in East Africa.  In that sense, we don’t have to wait and see who is going to win a major marathon or road race anymore, or how; we know before the starter’s horn ever sounds what will happen.  And when all (or vast majority) of the winners from the same region express the same reluctance to fill the spotlight from a marketing or media standpoint — in order to overcome the public’s inability to differentiate one from the other while helping generate sponsor interest — we see the potential end-game, as with CGI’s elimination of their entire North American elite athlete budget, reportedly $1 million U.S.

Yet in the wake of that announcement, even as the chat rooms and social media have lit up with either support for or condemnation of CGI, the only two athletes who have spoken out on the issue publicly that I’ve seen have been Josh Cox and today Ryan Vail of the U.S.  Perhaps I have missed others, but not one word has emerged from any of the world’s greatest runners, or their representatives.  Nothing.  And yet the CGI decision affects them more than anyone.  Perhaps there is a fear of speaking out, but even in that light do we wonder why CGI makes this kind of call?!

A couple of years ago Los Angeles Marathon elite athlete coordinator Bill Orr invited a young Ethiopian woman to the race.  She was probably away from home for the first time, and so overwhelmed by the experience not only couldn’t talk to the press at the Friday press conference, she couldn’t even look up at them.

Now, having been to Ethiopia several times, I was aware that in her culture keeping your eyes lowered before an elder is a sign of respect. But in the USA it comes across as deer-in-the-headlights.  I asked Bill Orr why this runner had been invited, or why she hadn’t been schooled on the responsibilities that go along with an elite invitation to a major U.S. marathon?  What if she won the race?  It would have been a disaster.

“She may well be an elite athlete,” I said, “but she isn’t a professional athlete. There’s more to the job than running fast.”

But there’s also more to recruiting a field than signing an athlete and expecting him/her to fully understand the duties expected of them other than racing.  If such duties aren’t spelled out, or if media training isn’t provided, how much should we blame a young athlete coming from a rural setting halfway around the world?  But for whatever reason, the vast majority of events that still invite top athletes have no such expectation, written policy or media support.

As we enter the 2013 fall road racing season, the sport is still coming to grips with the Competitor Group Inc. decision to immediately eliminate their entire North American elite athlete budget.  But do we call out CGI — some talk about boycotts — or do we move forward, expending energy in a positive direction?

Yes, CGI is the largest purveyor of races in the nation, and yes, they purchased Elite Racing and the legacy of competitive excellence that went with it. But how far does that responsibility go if the people who benefit the most from the elite athlete program won’t lift a finger to train anything beyond their cardio-vascular systems and legs?  Or, more tellingly, impress upon their more worldly representatives, who have been plucking eggs from the golden goose for decades, to upgrade their products to meet modern standards?

The fact that not one truly elite athlete has made a comment on an issue that is the talk of the sport is the kind of silence that just reinforces CGI’s decision to drop their support in the first place.  Without a voice, legs alone won’t do.

END

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26 thoughts on “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

  1. One reason that the world’s best runner haven’t spoken up is that these funding cuts hardly effects them. It effects elite and semi-elite American runners, for whom a few hundred dollars in travel expenses or prize money might matter. If CGI’s budget for elite runners was $1M US, as you suggested, and there were over 40 races, then that’s less than 25,000K per race — which does not go far with men’s and women’s races. It might cover travel for a half dozen American runners and a very merger prize structure. Of course, this funding was not evenly distributed across the 40 races, so there will be a few races that are truly hurt by the cuts (e.g., Philly half) and the rest hardly at all. Also, it has been written elsewhere that at least a few elite athletes will continue to have contracts with CGI’s — those are the elite Americans. So there you have it; the runners who will be most effected by this and the one’s are not the truly elite, but rather semi-elite not well known by the rank-and-file runners anyway. That’s why the truly elite are not complaining. It is also why this can be considered a potentially good business decision.

    • Anon,

      As you suggested, the cuts will effect the RnR Halfs in Philly, New Orleans, San Diego, and San Antonio that did have, and planned to have, truly elite athletes as part of the newly designed Half Marathon Grand Prix. The two half marathons in Lisbon will continue to have elite fields as racing still matters in Europe.

      And what of the Carlsbad 5000? If that event loses its elite element, it would be a real tragedy. So the loss does matter to some very top end runners. Also from my understanding, the contracts with the top Americans will be honored through the length of those contracts. But having top American runners turn up at expos and sign autographs, but then running without the inconvenience of competition, hardly makes a race elite. Thanks for the analysis.

  2. Toni- When the track stars are introduced at meets they do no better at exciting people. Yes, a lot of the questions they are asked are inane and so the answers tend to be the same, but maybe there just isn’t much to say!! I won, they didn’t. It was hilly, it was windy, it was cold, I am happy to be running. That is pretty boring stuff no matter who says it.

    That is one reason the team concept works. It creates more dynamics to be concerned with and keep fans and runners alike more interested in what happened out there as well as the end result.

  3. The elite were once the semi elite striving to be at the top. Eliminate the opportunities for rising stars and pretty soon you have no stars at all. Just aging “used to be stars” Agents and managers should be most concerned, if they plan on being in this for the long haul.

  4. Hi Toni-

    I have been following the developments of the CGI decision closely and I have read your posts with great interest. I am not a professional runner by any means, but I have raced many of the RnR events as an elite. I am an ex-professional triathlete and the question of whether pros are necessary or important has been an oft debated subject, much like in the running community. Please read my response to the CGI decision. http://fastatforty.blogspot.com/2013/09/do-professional-athletes-matter.html

    Joanna Zeiger

    • Thanks, Joanna. Appreciate all the consideration people like you and Camille have put into this vexing problem of improving the standards of our sports. Will give the post a read and get back to you.

      Toni

    • Several reasons for this:
      1) USATF doesn’t care
      2) road racing is not part of USATF. Road racing has its own organization – Road Runners Club of America (RRCA). I don’t know why they are acting like lambs either though
      3) USATF doesn’t care

    • And it’s not like USATF makes money from road races. There used to be a membership fee to join USATF (TAF, or AAU card) but that income stopped right around 2000?? So USATF could care less about CGI decision.

      I doubt if CGI people even go to track meets (Tracey does). I realized years ago that a schism exists between road runners and track people. Deny it if you must, but look at something like Race Results Weekly, it only list result from 800 meters on up. I dropped service IMMEDIATELY when I recognized this. I have heard more times than I can to recall Road people say to me, who cares about the track or I am just starting to like track.. yeah. That’s like people getting only watching a football game when special teams are on the field…

      A house divided …….

  5. I think the biggest upside to this whole situation is seeing people like you and Camille Herron talk about the need for pro runners to do something more than just running fast if they want to create value for sponsors, race directors and the events. Who do you think is at fault – and should be the responsibility going forward – for the athletes not having the willingness and savviness to be marketed? I place a good amount of it on the agents, since they are responsible for matching the athlete with the revenue stream. They are sending these athletes out into the world of sports business without even the basic skills and knowledge necessary to compete with every other athletes (not just in running). I wonder if this explains why so few agents market their athletes to non-endemic sponsors – they know these sponsors will demand the non-athletic qualities that are non-existent in runners, and for whatever reason opt not to build up the athletes they represent.

    There’s also the cultural aspect within the sport that has still not embraced the business side of the sport. Runners are happy to be martyrs for “love of the game” and time-worn talk about the purity of sport. This leads them to think that all they need to do is lower their time and the dollars will follow from that.

    • In other sports and show biz performers have two agents, a theatrical / talent agent, and a commercial agent. My wife used to work for a large commercial agency in L.A. But in our sport there is only the one agent who negotiates shoe contracts and get athletes into races. The entire commercial side is unheeded. Athletes have to see themselves as commodities off the track and roads, just as they do for competition. Until they do, corporate America will not pay attention. CGI is only the summoner ringing that bell.

    • George, great review of the sport.and the media problems. A point rarely touched on. There is no mandatory must interview rule like in “real” pro sports.
      I can’t tell you how many times I have been blown past, with microphone in hand, after a star athlete had a bad day. Meanwhile spectator and tv audiences are sitting there wondering where their star went.

      Mo Farrah did that recently during Prefontaine meeting. My sports director wanted to see a few money shots and Mo was one of them. I felt like a loser having to say.. Mo was upset with his loss and would not grant an interview with any media. So satellite uplink includes Edwin Soi but no Mo Farrah. Crybaby.

      Stacey Dragila, storming out of Athens Olympic Stadium, in 2004 when many people in the tv audience were expecting her to at least give a gracious exit interview. Crybaby..

      That does not happen in the big money sports. Win or lose you have to face the media and let the fans know what’s up, good or bad.

      The Kenyans have gotten to be a lot better than in the past but the Ethiopians are dreadful personalities. Many times they look at you like you are about to steal something and the camera is their foe. I find T. Dibaba a real pain in the #$^ along with a certain Kenyan male turned American superstar.

      Another thing on the media front. How come all the female athletes change their name when they get married? NO REAL celebrity would ever do that (tennis) but in athletics it’s common. Just when you get the name in the public eye and start to build on it… Boom it’s changed. Happens all the time. Keep your stage name.ladies.. Mary Decker-Tabb-Slaney, another crybaby..

      And don’t try to get close to many of the American sprinters as a certain coach will flip out. Guy walks around in military boots like he is George Patton literally yelling at you like you are one of his athletes.

      Yeah you are right.. The media presentation is the next frontier. We got the participation numbers and sponsors. Now we need to package the athletes better. Right on..

  6. I am annoyed with Competitor Groups stance but I kinda understand. This move has been rumored for YEARS. Tony come on admit it you have heard this rumor????

    And you being based in Diego (last I heard) so you got even better scoop on the deal?

    Okay. does not matter what you heard BUT the R&R series was kinda lame from an elite point of view. The Fox broadcast were always tepid and stale by the time the broadcast was available and there was scant to little outside coverage.

    The novelty of rock and roll bands along the route came to an end after, what the second year? But somehow the ideal struck a chord and the series grew like crazy. I can say that Lisbon and Madrid 10K were the only really exciting races and heck they are still happening, so after initially being disappointed about it I am now cool with it.

    Any serious running fan who follows the action via online links and apps that let you check out live BBC or Eurosport are yawning at this decision.

    The really top elites avoided this series like all the real race fans. Tracy and the gang did a good, no, great- amazing job in promoting active sports but somehow Gordon Gekko took over…

    I do see this happening to other races all across the USA. LA Marathon, type of second, third tier races. What’s the entry fee to Rock and Roll series, like 125 dollars? wow… Sometimes I wonder what has happened to our great sport. It’s cheaper to see a Yankee game than run a road race…Wow. Wow.!

    • Old Whistle,

      True enough, road running has been the red-headed step child of the federations since forever. perhaps requiring a USATF membership to enter races might make them care. Yes, at one time in order to run NYCM, Boston and Columbus Marathons you had to take membership, but when nothing was received in return, that practice was eliminated.

      I have said for twenty five years that there is a distinction between the “sport” for running and the “activity”. We promote one while encouraging the other. Instead, as you say, the divide opened and nobody cauterized the wound.

      Nice to see that racing still matters in Europe. Maybe one day we can see it resurrect in the U.S., but it may be a long road.

      Thanks for the thoughts.

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