THE FESTIVALIZATION OF SPORT — Respite from the competition of life

“Charming, smiling fellow”

In our center-right, celebrity-saturated society it is all but apostacy to say, as Yale University Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom did in a C-SPAN interview in 2000, “The country was almost destroyed by Ronald Reagan, that charming, smiling fellow.  He assured us we could all emancipate ourselves from our selfishness, which we proceeded to do on a national scale.”

Bloom’s biting assessment arrived on the heels of the dot-com bubble, but a full eight years before the housing bubble burst, a collapse that plummeted the country into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Today, we are still on the long climb back to full recovery, if such a thing even exists.

In our modest running world, a similar emancipation has taken place.  Over the last generation, running has witnessed its own emancipation from effort, better known as the “Everyone’s a Winner” phase of the second running boom.  Runner’s World’s Mark Remy wrote about it this past January – OK, Time to Retire the Finisher’s Medal, and just yesterday the Wall Street Journal took up the issue – A lack of competitiveness in younger runners is turning some races into parades.

In June 1982, the late president of the New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon Fred Lebow told me, “You talk of a running boom, but we haven’t seen a boom yet.  This has only been a boom-let.  The one area that is completely behind the times is women running.  Most races see 15-25% women, yet the population is over 50% women.”

As with most things, Lebow was a seer.  Today, mass marathons in the U.S. are generally over 50% women with some tilting over 60%. Even registration for next April’s Boston Marathon, the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, has skewed heavily female.  Much of that is the consequence of last year’s tragic bombings at the Boston finish line, but some of it is Lebow’s prophecy coming true.

Though the 2014 Boston Marathon registration will skew slower and more female than usual with addition of the 4700 entrants from 2013, predominantly women, who were unable to complete the distance due to the finish line bombings, it is still a long way from 1979 when only 520 women entered Boston compared to 7357 men.


Throughout the first running boom, excellence held sway as Frank Shorter’s gold medal performance at the 1972 Munich Olympic Marathon inspired his fellow Baby Boomers to take up the sport.  As such, they saw improvement as the purpose of racing.  Similarly, the reason the Boston Marathon holds such an elevated position in the sport is due not just to its 117 year history, but to its rigid qualifying standards, making it the People’s Olympics, if you will.

But after qualifying standards peaked in the early 1980s at sub-2:50 for  male open division entry, the BAA began lowering standards to increase field size before tightening all age qualifying standards by 5:00 last year. Still, the current standards tilt toward easier female entry, especially at the younger end of the age spectrum.

With the advent of the first Rock `n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, we began to see the Lebow-anticipated move toward the participation-based completion model.  Where at one time every participant would receive a tee shirt, soon a bright, shiny medal was also hung around the neck of every finisher regardless of the quality of their effort.  Accordingly, we have seen the gap between elite and also-ran grow to a black-hole depth as the linking ground of effort has been allowed to go fallow.  By the way, this is not to confuse hard effort at a slower pace with an easy effort at a faster pace. Speed itself is not the mark of effort.


Scott Dickey, CGI CEO
Scott Dickey, CGI CEO

In a recent phone conversation, CGI CEO Scott Dickey told me:  “This (modern running movement) has been a fairly consistent textbook case of the sophisticated building of a hobby to a sport to a business, with negatives and positives, for sure.  But private equity brings influence, impact, and stature to the sport.”

Perhaps it brings those things to the activity of running Scott, but quite evidently it doesn’t bring it to the sport, or else CGI wouldn’t have pulled away from the competitive side of the equation.

“There has been a festival-ization of sport where mass participation is just as important as sport,” continued Dickey, “where TV and sponsors get a return on their investment.  But we’re not talking to Tony Romo on the field, but to the 70,000 Dallas Cowboy fans in the stands.  But our fans are not in the stands, and that’s what makes running unique.  It has been very difficult to scale elite competitions, and sponsors don’t care about elite runners.  Yet we have been demonized for our decision while we have spent millions, and still cover the elites on, which has not been taken into consideration.”

But one reason sponsors don’t care about elite runners is because CGI never made a concerted effort to create a viable elite program.

Since buying Elite Racing in December 2007, CGI continued building and branding its events (Rock `n` Roll), but never branded its competitions.  Every RnR race was one-and-done, though they did make a late, but now-cancelled effort to institute a Half Marathon Grand Prix this past March.

.US National Road Racing Champs LogoBut to be fair, CGI never received assistance from the cadre of elite athletes or their agents to improve the scalability of elite competition, either. Nor did the hundreds of long-standing independent, non-aligned events in the industry, which had similarly allowed the competitive, elite racing model to go stale in the face of the more lucrative participation model, work to improve or upgrade that elite model.

And to call USATF, the governing body tasked with promoting the sport at the grass roots level, an absentee landlord when it came to road racing would be  to denigrate all such landlords. Though USATF has in recent years belatedly gotten into the game, this year adding its first, wholly-owned road race property,  .US National Road Racing Championships.  But that effort is too little, too late.


Personally, I do not see the give-and-take that has roiled the sport over the last several weeks as a zero-sum game where one side loses and the other wins.  It should be win-win.  I make the point that when there was interest in the running game, as when the New York City Marathon was on ABC network TV for 13 years until 1993, when the Chicago Marathon was covered live on CBS network, when the best runners in the world were college graduates from America and Europe, and when the foreign runners who did come to our shores came from all parts of the globe, giving an international flavor to the proceedings, we had the base upon which to build a viable sporting model.

But when the original generation of running stars retired, and race directors benignly allowed an endless parade of anonymous, interchangeable East Africans who were neither required, nor chose to improve their market viability, the sport sagged into a state of disinterest over the course of 20 years.  Out of that neglect grew the ‘everyone is a winner’ mentality, closely followed by the slew of new non-competitive “fun-run” events, and finally Competitor Group’s fateful decision to disengage from elite-oriented competition altogether.

Which leaves us where?  To do what?  With whom?  Toward what end?

It is evident that the major stakeholders in the sport focused their attentions on their individual principalities, while allowing the underlying infrastructure of the sport to deteriorate.  All of that said, today’s world is more complicated than when the Baby Boom generation was emerging into its adult years and began the first running boom.

Except for the very top of the economic food chain, today’s Americans are being squeezed tighter than ever, must compete harder in their everyday lives, have less support from an economy that can’t quite find its way over the hump, and thus have less freedom to explore what is seen as an esoteric version of competition, foot racing over distance.

It’s like people didn’t need a metaphor for overcoming odds via last year’s ING New York City Marathon while they were still up to their eyeballs actually overcoming Hurricane Sandy.  So, too, are today’s runners overcoming odds on a daily basis in a much more highly competitive world, and thus have chosen running as a decompression chamber in which to find release from the pressures of parenting and work.

When life, itself, is overly competitive, you don’t necessarily want to add competitive running to the mix — though, indeed, some do.  Instead, you want to run away and escape it. That’s why the front of the pack doesn’t connect with the back. They are involved in radically different activities and motivations.

Fact is, not everyone is a winner, but maybe running for a shiny medal and lower blood pressure might be the antidote to a venomous reality, and perhaps, even gives many people something to smile about, too.


31 thoughts on “THE FESTIVALIZATION OF SPORT — Respite from the competition of life

  1. Heya i am for the first time here. I came across this board and
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  2. Exellent article.Here in South Africa the excat same thing is happening, but luckily
    we have the Comrades Marathon which has gone from entrants of 5000 in the 1970’s to 20000 in 2010, with entries opening in September and sold out in October because of the same festival/participation/fun/bucket list/ marketing ploy.

    Luckily the Comrades Association did not abolish Comrades tradition and still included cut off times.A 50 mile race in 12 hours. Not achieved,no recognition,no medal,no result.Only consulation is your tee shirt at registration which no one wears anyway because they always get asked how did your RACE go or should I say event/run/participation.In 2013 18500 registered,16500 started(you have to pre register)not too sure but about 10 000 finished with about 7000 finishing between 11 and 12 hours.It is so well marketed that if you for some reason cant run you can substitute you number to someone and the Comrades Marathon association charges them a fee.

    Only now has the Comrades introduced a roadshow with various proffesionals ie doctors/coaches /physios etc etc to explain and showcase the event showing that to achieve that objective it does require commitment and training.(almost like what cigarette/alcohol companies warn you against on their packaging)

  3. Toni,

    Good article. You have every right to write what you wish. This is your blog, no one else’s but ‘also rans’ who are working their asses off to just break a 4 hour marathon or 3 hours are should still be considered just as ‘elite’ as the others. Will they run sub 2.10 or women sub 2.25, probably not but nobody likes being considered an ‘also-ran’. Those that have never run even a sub 3 hour marathon should never call someone who has or at least is trying an ‘also-ran’. It is like commentators who sit back on trucks talking about how 4.50 mile pace is ‘modest’ while at half marathon pace when the same commentator hasn’t even run one 4.50 mile in their life. Unless these people are in the trenches they’ll never understand but they sure can write a nice article or talk eloquently in the media. ‘Doing’ rather than ‘Saying’ are two totally different things. I’ve always loved your enthusiasm for the sport. You’ve been around a long time and know everyone and their mother so you have my respect. My being a 2.19 marathoner myself who never had a lot of talent, I tend to fight for those who really don’t have a voice because all of the ‘elites’ seem to take the limelight away from those who are working just as hard as anyone else, they sure as hell aren’t ‘also-ran’. Good article nonetheless though…

  4. Excellent article. I wandered out of the organized road racing circuit in 1984 and wandered back in in 2003; like Rip Van Winkle, I found myself wondering at the transformation that had occurred in my absence. Back in 1983, as a 26-year-old sub-sub-sub-elite, I ran the Jersey Shore Marathon hoping to qualify for Boston. I ran 2:53:30, which was a notable PR, but left me more than three minutes short of my goal. I was proud of the time and even prouder of the effort (I spent 30 minutes on a stretcher after crossing the line), but also chastened by the knowledge of just how good I’d have to be in order to qualify. Reentering the organized race world in 2003, older and considerably slower, I discovered that local road races had been colonized by charities and degraded by a culture of mediocrity. At many events, including the Corinth Coke 10K in Corinth, Mississippi, supposedly a nationally-known race, the WINNERS of the danged race were the LAST to be announced, after the top three male and female in every single age group, from 8 year olds through 80 year olds, had been introduced and applauded. Can you imagine? Half the crowd had gone home by the time the overall winners were announced. I’m old-school enough to believe that those overall winners are heroic exemplars and should be celebrated as culture heroes. But our culture heroes are the cancer survivors, the couch-to-5K, those who “just did it,” regardless of whether they trained well, expended maximal effort, or–gasp!–had real talent and displayed it for our joyful consumption. To some extent–and I speak as an ardent feminist–I believe that American running culture on the local competitive level has indeed been feminized, made “nice,” made into something supportive and nurturing and non-bullying, at the expense of a slightly rougher, slightly more testosterone-driven club-running culture that prevailed in the early 1980s. This hurts competitive women, frankly, as much as men. I still remember passing Kathy McIntyre, a NY icon, at the end of a Central Park 5K many years ago. I wanted to kick her ass. She certainly wanted to kick mine. That is–or was–as it should be. I salute the Tupelo Running Club for keeping the edge alive with thei”Hurdle the Dead, Trample the Weak” motto of their annual September marathon. To those who agree with me: when your local 5K neglects to begin the award ceremony by awarding the overall male and female winner, make a point of letting the RD know your displeasure. That’s a place to start.

  5. This essay just builds upon the specious WSJ article.

    Running has exploded in popularity and with that has come an explosion of races (orders of magnitude) which dilutes the competition at the elite level period. Add to that mix the allure of multisport/triathlon, ultramarathoning, adventure racing, and now crossfit competitions, you see a massive fracturing of talent pool and venues to draw in competition. There is no lack of competitive spirit in the younger generation and big races have always had a parade element (think Bay to Breakers or even NYC Marathon in the 80s).

    The sobering reality is that the peak number of elite/sub-elite runners happens when they are in college and have plenty of time to train and rest and competitions that are structured and teams to encourage them. That hasn’t changed. Oddly enough we are in a very competitive college cycle where we have guys running sub-4 routinely and fast 5k times. Post college, we’ve had national track champions in the 90’s unable to get sponsored and we’ve had elite groups of post-grads barely making ends meet with shoe contracts and some monthly stipends.

    Why? Because the financials aren’t there for elites and never have been save to support a tiny handful. This isn’t news.

    Endurance sports have always been about finishing (queue tape of Julie Moss at Ironman). The guys whining/criticizing in the WSJ article about being 50+ and beating younger folks should ask themselves why they are running the same race every year. And maybe take a look at how many men snatched 135lb in the Crossfit Open.

    1. You had a good point until you threw in the cross fit reference. It’s not a sport. It’s a fad that ends up causing serious injuries.

      1. Oh, it is definitely a sport and it is definitely creating injuries. But it is drawing a lot of talented athletes at the sub-elite level. Plenty of guys who if they put miles in would grind out the 2:38-2:55 marathons.

        And it is definitely not a fad (it is 13 years in the making already). We will increasingly see this type of strength work (already are) being bled into lots of other sports.

  6. By the way, you know what would help non-competitors to see this link, for the “participants” to care about the “competitors”? Actual PRESENCE of elites around races. I have been to dozens of events around major marathons — pre-race, post-race, etc — and frankly can’t remember seeing an elite bother to show up.

    If you can pay literally thousands of dollars on entries over a few years and never even GLIMPSE an elite, the appeal of paying for their presence goes down a bit, doesn’t it?

    Elites and agents have been proven wrong in the belief that simply flying in, racing and going back to the hotel offers a value-add to races for anyone but a few of us students of the sport. (For one thing, most races are sold out months before the fields are announced.) When I pay >$100 for an NYCM or BAA event, I barely care what sub-elites are going to be there, and I promise you I care more than 99% of the field does.

    At the NYRR half in March, Mary W had Abdi take the mic for a few seconds before the race. This was nice, but just a tiny, tiny, tiny start if we want to fight the Rock and Roll model of simply forgetting elites. If we can get the NYCM or Boston winners on Letterman and ringing the stock exchange bell etc, surely we can get medalists to walk the floor of the post-race party. Come on. This isn’t hard stuff to dream up.

    1. I know at the Manchester Road Race in Manchester, CT. The elites do participate in the pasta dinner before the event. Many stay with local host families.

      You can go up to them after the race and say hi.

  7. “…we have seen the gap between elite and also-ran grow to a black-hole depth as the linking ground of effort has been allowed to go fallow.”

    This is a great way of putting it. I have always taken a “populist” view of the sport, probably in part because I got into it later than most and spend most of my races in no-man’s land between the elites and the pack.

    The funny thing is that most true elites take a more populist view of the sport than the sub-elite chasers and commentators out there. Visiting Kenya I went for many runs with a sub-2:10 guy (sub-elite there!) and he often said, very genuinely, “David, all runners are friends, because we all know the pain of training.” This comment changed my view of running as two separate sports: the one I watched elites do and the one I did. I saw the link that goes all the way from the winner to the pack: effort,

    I took very seriously this link between a runner like him and me racing over a minute per mile slower, and I take very seriously ANY runner training hard, whether they are one, two or ten minutes per mile slower than me in a marathon. Anyone who is getting out there every day trying to improve has that bond. Or should.

    Where it falls apart is when that “linking ground of effort” is lost, when someone pays their way in (which is fine by me) and walks the thing (which is fine by me) without bothering to train in any serious way beforehand (not fine by me).

  8. I would be interested to see some actual statistics pointing at how the “everyone is a winner” mentality has actually decreased performance level. The current generation of distance runners are significantly faster than distance runners in the ’90s. There is significant competition in the 20-29 age range at my local running club, especially out on the roads. If this mentality I actually destructive, why are kids running faster today than they have in decades?

    1. The comparison, Jon, is not with the runners of the 1990s, but those of the first running boom of the 1970s and early `80s. A time that once put you in 300th place may now place you well inside the top 100. Just like with the economy, it is the middle class that has been lost.

  9. Even Boston isn’t the same: while there are still qualifying standards to gain entry, you can also gain entry by raising money for a charity. While fund raising for worthy charities is to be lauded, there are people participating in Boston that could never qualify.

  10. I have been running and racing since I was 12 spurred on by the Grete and Joanie era. I am now 47 and still racing…as hard as I can BTW! The last 2 years I have been saying where are all the fast women? I was always a back of the front pack runner chasing the fast women, now this year alone I have come in 3rd, 2nd, & 3rd for overall females and winning the 40+ age group. At 47 that should not be happening! The 20 and 30 year olds should be kicking my butt! I am a very inner competitive person once the clock starts I go as hard as I can but I see plenty of people just running the race slowly chatting away like a training run.
    Glad to see they are out there but I just don’t get it.

  11. Toni,
    I enjoyed this article but found it interesting there was no mention of the intense marketing that has gone in to this phenomenon of participation. No mention of the 13.1, 26.2 stickers (they’re everywhere!), no mention of Team In Training, Girls on The Run, Tough Mudder, etc. A ton of advertising and for profit energy has gone into hooking people in to endurance sports.

    Steve Adkisson
    author of Juggernauts – The Making of A Runner and A Team In The First American Running Boom

    1. Steve,

      A lot of advertising and profit energy has gone into hooking people into endurance “activity” not “sport”. The “fun run” phenomenon is accordingly very well marketed by professional business people, while the competitive model continues to be marketed by runners. Not a fair fight.

  12. Excellent piece! I also believe there’s plenty of room for different approaches in the wide world of running. Though I never sign up for shorter races unless I’m planning to go all out, I can admit to signing up for some marathons just to enjoy myself (which isn’t to say I haven’t truly race many as well). I think whatever the reason, it’s good to have so many people doing something active, no matter what their end goal.

  13. CGI CEO Scott Dickey: “But private equity brings influence, impact, and stature to the sport.” What a load of bull! The only thing that private equity brings to anything is the desire to make lots of money. They couldn’t care less about the sport except as an instrument to make their profits. They are parasites feeding off a healthy host until it is dead, and then moving on to the next one.

  14. Toni, great piece and I absolutely agree. This should be a win-win. As a lifelong athlete and mid-packer who trains and runs for PRs, I also enjoy the decompression and fun of a running festival. I think there’s plenty of room in the sport for both aspects. Especially if they’re complimenting instead of fighting each other. It takes all kinds to make a world, right? And the world of running is no different. Hallelujah that a record number of Americans (and women!) are out there running, regardless of their reasons or effort-level while doing it. If you want to race, race. If you want to have fun, have fun. I believe there is and should be room for both.

    1. Karla,

      Yes, we have compartmentalized running into elite and recreational categories rather than joining them into the two wings of the same building. It shouldn’t be that hard to connect the two to the benefit of each. Complimentary is the right word. Thanks for the reply.

  15. Your final thought, sir, is interesting. But I did – and still – workout as hard as I can, to be as strong and as fast as I can be, because such exercise relaxes me. Speed doesn’t kill, it makes one stronger. And inevitably happier, more self-confident, etc.

    1. Jack,

      While I might agree that in the face of life’s pressure, running hard can serve as its own release mechanism, not all are similarly built. We used to call those hard efforts Hate Runs, cause it wrung all the hate we had built up over the course of the week right out of us.

  16. Running races is my happy place. There are those days when I can run races quickly, and then there are others when the week has been so stressful at work and elsewhere that just getting to the starting line is an accomplishment. Enjoyed the article. Keep it up.

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