Honolulu, Hawaii – Even as the Virgin Money London Marathon features a fearsome field of contenders for its 2014 edition this Sunday morning, former marathon world record holder, and Sunday London pacer, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia has offered a bleak prognosis for the sport he bestrode for so many years.
“Athletics has to change a little bit, bring in new ideas, new concepts,” said the holder of 27 world records to the assembled London press corps. “Otherwise it’s going to be just a bit boring to watch.”
That’s a little ironic, perhaps, since Haile will play a key role in one of running’s most labored old ideas this Sunday morn, lead pacer in the marathon. New ideas? How about letting the athletes compete over the entire distance? Boring to watch? How about knowing for a certainty that NOTHING will happen for the first half of the race — Unless there is an error in judgement, like we saw in 2013 when they went through the half in 61:34, or in 2009 when they went through 10k in 28:30 on the way to the half in 61:36. Those kind of errors just blow up the race, not the SOMETHING race organizers might be looking for.
Saying the health and well-being of the sport (meaning track & field) has been masked by the over-sized presence of Jamaican superstar sprinter Usain Bolt, Haile wondered what the sport would do in his absence?
“We have to upgrade the situation,” he concluded, “attract more of an audience (and give) what they like. We have to attract sponsors. If the sponsors think nobody cares about athletics, who is going to sponsor you?”
In a teleconference today (April 10), Olympic 1500m silver medalist Leo Manzano of the U.S. spoke about his signing a multiple-year deal with Hoka One One, the ultra-trendy new running shoe brand out of Decker Sports. Manzano had gone more than a year without a sponsor before signing with Hoka, even though Hoka entered the sport as an ultra-marathoner’s shoe and had no racing flats much less spikes in its catalog – though Leo will now help develop both. But when an Olympic medalist with an exciting style of racing can’t get a sponsor deal, what does that say about the viability for the sport’s future?
In London double Olympic track champion and hometown star Mo Farah will be making his much anticipated marathon debut Sunday morning, but we already know where he will be through the first 13.1 miles (21.1k) of the race, thirty-seconds behind the lead pack. How do we know? Because it’s been set up that way before the starting gun is even fired.
The lead pack — ostensibly made up of defending champion Tsegaye Kebede, world record holder Wilson Kipsang, New York and Boston course record holder and world’s fastest marathoner (unofficially) Geoffrey Mutai, course record holder Emmanual Mutai, Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, and Dubai Marathon champion (and 18 year-old!) Tsegay Mekonnen of Ethiopia – will follow their pacers at 61:45 pace through halfway, while Mo will join another pack at 62:15 pace as per the strategy of his coach Alberto Salazar.
What makes sports in general so appealing is its unwritten drama. How a game, or a race, unfolds is part of the intrigue. To orchestrate that unfolding, even in part, is to lessen its dramatic effect. Mo Farah is a brilliant racer, and thinking on your feet is one of the attributes that separates champions from also-rans. Remember that Wilson Kipsang took a sizeable early lead in the un-paced 2012 Olympic Marathon in London, only to get caught before salvaging a bronze medal. Take thinking out of the mix, and you diminish the strength of some athletes, while shielding the weakness of others. And for what, a fast time, a predetermined outcome?
With track man Mo in the London field with his 3:28 1500m speed, and all the crowd support behind him, the other contenders know full well they will eventually have to get rid of the personable superstar. So who is going to take on the task of forcing the pace? Maybe nobody, as each looks to the other to make the sacrifice. And what if nobody does? Well, then Mo’s chances rise. And that’s what makes racing intriguing, the What-Ifs. But once you introduce pacers you strip away those decisions, those What Ifs, and the goal is as much about end result as it is the process, how fast someone runs as opposed to who wins in whatever time.
There was an interesting article in this week’s New Yorker magazine — The Fourth Quarter — about Los Angeles Laker basketball superstar Kobe Bryant. The stats revolution that swept into baseball early in the 21st century had arrived in the NBA,” wrote Ben McGrath. But despite his scoring proficiency, Kobe has never been a stats man.
“I’ve always been more interested in the creative side of the game,” Kobe told McGrath, “like how things happen, and why they happen, as opposed to just the numbers.”
But running is mired in its numbers, especially its finishing times, while the hows and whys get pushed into a supporting role. And we wonder why the sport can develop participants but not fans?
“Numbers have never felt fun to me,” concluded Bryant.
Here in Honolulu the Hapalua Half Marathon is staging its third running Sunday morning, and creative side of the sport will be on display. Former marathon world record holder Patrick Makau and last weekend’s Prague Half Marathon champion Peter Kirui will be joined by 2004 Olympic women’s 5000m silver medalist Isabella Ochichi, all of Kenya, in a Chase format against a host of top local runners. 24 local runners (and Isabella Ochichi) will receive a head start ranging from 21 minutes to 4:30, after which Makau and Kirui will give chase at the head of the mass field. The winner of the Chase will receive the first prize check.
Last year 25 year-old Army first lieutenant Stephen Marthy of Fort Shafter won the Chase competition by just four-seconds over local woman Christina Wong. Marthy’s 1:12:46 gun time was reduced to 1:01:26 by his 11-minute head start, while Won’g 25-minute head start produced a 1:01:50 off a 1:26:50 gun time. Patrick Makau could only manage 5:00/mile pace in the torrential downpour, finishing 16th in 1:05:28.
What the Chase format does is link the top tier of the sport with the slightly slower, but still dedicated cadre of regional-class and local-class runners, pitting them in a competition each has a chance to win.
Nobody is suggesting that rabbits never be used in races. Last weekend’s Paris Marathon is a case in point. Arranged as a showcase for Ethiopian track & cross country superstar Keninisa Bekele’s debut, Paris wasn’t so much about who would win, but how Bekele would take to the distance. So, too, is the Berlin Marathon more an annual world record attempt, as opposed to a competition among equals.
But marathons in London, Boston, Chicago and New York City which feature the highest quality competitions seem most compelling served fresh and untouched. The finishing times, yes, even a world record, emerge from the competition, not by controlling it. Certainly we have seen some scintillating competitions in paced marathons, 2010 Chicago comes to mind, as does London last year. But in London 2013 the pacers didn’t hit their prescribed marks. Instead, they went out far faster than planned. In that case, the mistake helped create the big drama at race end. Leader Emmanuel Mutai hit the wall hard, and was passed in the final kilometer by Tsegaye Kebede, who had been originally dropped at 25k.
Maybe I am a purist. But I don’t want to know what is going to happen until I see it happen. How can we attract new fans if we tell them ahead of time ‘here is how it’s going to go down.”?
“The NBA tweaks its rules more assiduously than its rival leagues,” wrote Ben McGrath in the New Yorker article on Kobe Bryant, “always seeking the perfect balance to suit a growing audience.”
Perhaps running should take a subscription. END