As the 2015 running year comes to its rather sad conclusion we find a sport existing, barely, on life-support, reeling from the toxic shock of massive internal corruption at the governance level, and widespread performance enhancing drug use at the sporting level.
But let’s not feel too aggrieved. The self-inflicted wounds suffered by the sport of athletics in 2015 fit neatly into a world at-large now forced to come to terms with an apocalyptic nihilism that doesn’t share the basic assumptions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And without such common assumptions and goals mankind will never fully reconcile the fratricidal tendencies that have emerged and now play out with an increasingly alarming frequency in regions both near and far.
On as minor a note as possible within that apocalyptic construct, perhaps it is fitting that Rodale Press announced last week that it will cease publication of Running Times magazine with the January/February 2016 issue. According to RT editor-in-chief Jonathan Beverly, “the decision was purely business-related: the size of the audience was not large enough to sustain the magazine in the current publishing and advertising environment. Everyone involved has expressed respect for the editorial content in our pages and appreciation for the loyal readership of the magazine.
“The website will continue as is for the remainder of the year, after which, while much is being worked out, it will be most likely be fully branded Runner’s World. David Willey has expressed that Runner’s World can and should cover more stories for the competitive Running Times reader, be they high school, cross country runners, or masters marathoners.”
Certainly, some of the Running Times closing has to do with the ongoing technological revolution that finds the print format slow, costly, and obsolete. But as Beverly pointed out, some of it has to do with the erosion of the serious running population as well, as the sport has fully morphed into a lifestyle activity at the zero-sum expense of the competitive sport.
Of course, the competitive wing has done itself no favors either. There is no doubt that the competitive model has long-since gone stale even before the corrupting influence of performance enhancing drug use.
Again in 2015 more than 90% of the top 100 times in the marathon came out of the two east African nations of Kenya (56) and Ethiopia (37), while 67% of the top 100-meter times flew out of the USA (44) and Jamaica (23). With competition in two of the three marquee events of the sport being dominated by so few nations, and now the entire system coming under suspicion and doubt, while being led by a pack of greedy jackals, there has been no back log of goodwill to cushion the fall.
You can say that Running Times is one casualty of this circumstance, as was Marathon & Beyond before it. Begun during the first flush of the running boom in 1977, Running Times demise is a direct reflection of how the racing end of the running industry has increasingly become a non-factor, no longer the driver of events or the industry. Not even close.
And you could see this existential crisis coming from a long way out.
In 1980 as the leading runners of the day began pressing for changes in the sport’s amateur governance that would allow them to make a living through their competitive and commercial efforts – changes that are still not fully realized, but which continue to generate advocacy, as we see in Lauren Fleshman’s Proposal to Make a Living at last week’s USATF annual conference in Houston – there were those who saw this long descent into irrelevance coming quite clearly.
“The more that dollars get involved, the more kinds of people will be attracted to the sport,” said Midland Run race director Bob Bright in July 1980. “There’s a positive side to that, and a negative one. The negative side is people whose primary interest is to exploit the sport and the athlete.
“That’s why it is important right now that the knowledgeable people within the sport, whether it be the runners or the race directors basically get their stuff together. They need to form an organization and take control. Because if they don’t there are people right now on the outside who know nothing about running, but know a lot about promotion and PR, advertising and exploitation. And they are going to run in and pick up the ball. So that’s why we are in an important phase right now. We must assume control of our own sport.
“I think a Marvin Miller type is absolutely essential (first Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association). If the athletes don’t have a bona fide, well-organized structure with a real leader, they are going to have a lot of problems. So it is essential for the survival of the sport that track & field (athletics) and road racing that the athletes unify and work together. It is going to take harmony.”
Though fledgling organizations like the Professional Athletes Association of Kenya (PAAK) and the Track & Field Athletes Association (TFAA) in the USA have been mounted, and Abbott World Marathon Majors has offered something akin to a competitive league in road racing, true harmony and unity has never been achieved.
To this day the athletes continue to look to the outmoded and endemically corrupt national governing body system to come to their rescue rather than unite into a player’s association to conduct the business of what, in the end, is their own profession — even as they work hand-in-hand with the NGBs for national championships and international team selections, which is the rightful role of the NGBs.
This is no different than what all other successful sports have done in order to move into a more productive, modern era. So as long as track and field athletes allow themselves to be regulated by interests which are not primarily their own, they will continue to be frustrated and powerless, pawns in a game controlled by international oligarchs who are in it for their own financial and political gain.
After all the mendacity and institutional corruption that has been uncovered in 2015, one wonders what it would finally have to take to put an end to this utter stupidity and debilitating irrationality.