THE NEED FOR WHITE HATS V. BLACK HATS

Tesfaye Abera wins in Dubai

Tesfaye Abera wins in Dubai over defender Birhanu

Last night’s Standard Charter Dubai Marathon showed in microcosm all the strengths as well as all the weaknesses confronting foot racing as public spectacle. From a purely athletic standpoint it was a terrific show with 23 year-old unknown Tesfaye Abera of Ethiopia coming back in the final 500 meters to sling shot past defending champion Hayle Lemi Berhanu by nine seconds in 2:04:24 to notch a five-minute PR!

But except for a small, but enthusiastic gathering of Ethiopian ex-pats at the finish, the dead flat, three-turned Dubai course layout was as empty as the Revlon makeup counter at the local mosque.

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"Money" Mayweather bling

“Money” Mayweather bling

Say what you will about Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, the recently retired-now unretired boxing champion (and richest sportsman in the world in 2015), the guy could sell the be-jeezus out of his fights. People just hated the guy with a passion for his swaggering, make-it-rain lifestyle, his pimped up, iced-out persona. And boy, did the people want to see him get his ass handed to him. The fact that none of his opponents could knock his block off just made his next fight sell all the more pay-per-view buys. The guy could sell the sh*t out of his fights.

But the fact is, however you chose to see Mayweather – and his numerous trips to court to defend his treatment of women gave validity to the charge he wasn’t putting on that much of a show, he might actually have been a bit of a d*ck after all – a sport needs its Black Hats to gin up interest going up against the good guy White Hats to promote the game.

Brady v. ManningConsider this weekend’s New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos match-up in the AFC Championship. For almost all football fans outside the six New England states the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick led Pats are the hated Spy-gate, Deflate-gate cheatin’ Black Hats going up against the age-compromised, but beloved Pizza Man Peyton Manning led Broncos. It’s not just the Broncos v. Patriots, but the Good Guy v. the Too Perfect Dandy who people want to see get put in his place (though Brady doesn’t trash talk, and is actually more than collegiate with Peyton).

In his December 14, 2015 Monday Morning Podcast, comedian Bill Burr (perhaps the funniest comic working today) talked about this issue of needing athletes who “sell the fight” in context of Ronda Rousey’s first loss in the MMA.

“You can’t have some Portuguese-spouting Brazilian who can’t speak English. Not if you’re trying to appeal to a dollar spending American audience. You need someone to sell the fight in public.”

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A foot race is nothing more than another kind of fight with pace as its bludgeoning device. Done well a race becomes a brutal contest of wills (see last night’s Dubai Marathon). But it can’t simply be a lab experiment in speed alone (see last night’s Dubai Marathon). People have to care who wins and who loses. Somehow the heart has to get engaged not just the wrist watch.

With the announced retirement of Ryan Hall, the sport has running lost one of few marquee stars. But it isn’t just the lack of promotable stars that has hurt foot racing as a sporting contest over the last two decades. What has also contributed has been the absence of big-time race promoters, the competition tub-thumpers.

Circus Ringmaster

Circus Ringmaster

Remember, there is a big difference between a race director and a race promoter. Race directors are the nuts-and-bolts people. They stage the race, define the course, insure safety and implement the proper movement of people and resources. You couldn’t have a sport without them, for sure. But promoters are the guys in the red cutaway coats, shiny black boots and top hat standing in the sawdust in the spotlight drawing attention to the attraction. They are the Don Kings in boxing, the Dana Whites of the UFC in mixed martial arts, the matchmakers who stage the competition for public consumption.

Running Ringmaster Fred Lebow

Running Ringmaster Fred Lebow

The most famous promoter the sport of marathoning has ever had was New York’s Fred Lebow. It was Fred who touted his five-borough race and made stars out of its champions. Throughout the `80s Fred had a flamboyant opponent in Chicago in ex-marine Bob Bright. Their Star Wars battles for the top runners of their day made its way into mainstream press, while in Boston there was the genial administrator named Will Cloney, a grandfatherly figure who represented the blue blood, old money traditions of unshowy savoir faire.

Mary Wittenberg performed well as promoter throughout her term in New York City before moving on to Virgin Sports last year, and Chicago has been well served by Carey Pinkowski for over a quarter century, though Carey has never been a naturally flamboyant type.

ex-London Big Wig Dave Bedford

ex-London Big Wig Dave Bedford

The last promoter who fit the bill in running was London’s Dave Bedford, an ex-athlete with a bigger-than-life personality who could not only round up athletes, but sell their exploits to the public with a wit and charge that elevated London to #1 marathon status in the world.

I’m not sure if it is chicken or egg, does running simply draw mostly introverts to its ranks, or does the act tend to humble even the more naturally flamboyant who come to it?

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What Meb Keflezighi gave us in Boston 2014 was a win for the ages, because for the first time in God knows how long there was a guy leading that the crowd actually cared about and was openly rooting for. Geoffrey Mutai, the Boston course record holder from 2011 is back once again in 2016, though no longer the world beater he was those few years ago. A fine man, Mutai is also the protagonist in Ed Caesar’s excellent book, Two Hours: The Quest for the Impossible Race. But is anyone taking the family to Coolidge Corner in Brookline hoping Geoffrey comes by first?

We haven’t had a fan favorite heading the ranks of the world’s best marathoners since the retirement of Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie. Meb comes close, coming across as one of the Good Guys. But where is the rival Black Hat? Mo Farah has built a powerful fan base in his English homeland, and promises to reinvigorate the marathon after Rio 2016, but can the sport wait for such one-offs to come around every decade or so?

For a generation now running has headlined a bunch of uber-fast ciphers who hail from a land where subsistence farming is the economic model, where everyone in the family must chip in to make ends meet. Within such a shared economic system strong personalities are not lauded nor rewarded. That’s why the other Kenyans were so appalled by Cosmas Ndeti talking trash in Boston going for his fourth straight title in 1996.

Tree-time Boston champion Cosmas Ndeti (1993--95)

Tree-time Boston champion Cosmas Ndeti (1993–95)

We in the media loved it, but the Kenyans hated it. Eventual `96 race winner Moses Tanui ran that year motivated by his contempt for Ndeti who was making his country look bad from his POV. But that is exactly the attitude we need to help promote what has morphed into a bucket list item for hundreds of thousands of participants rather than a compelling competition for millions of fans.

END

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20 thoughts on “THE NEED FOR WHITE HATS V. BLACK HATS

  1. Good post, Toni! It doesn’t have to even be about “good guy” vs. “bad guy! It can even be about “champ” vs. “challenger!” In the “hey/hay days” of American road racing back in the ’70’s and 80’s….. you had “Rodgers vs. Shorter”, “Rodgers vs. Challengers”, “Salazar vs. Beardsley” (Boston 82?), “Salazar vs. other int’l runners” or even my own “Virgin vs. Dixon” or “Virgin vs Lindsay.” Dixon was one of the savviest promoter/athletes I even ran against. He was really PR conscious… and even donned boxing gloves to wear in a publicity shot with me (Dixon and I were nose to nose with our gloves touching in a menacing way) for front page sports picture in SF Examiner paper in ’83? to promote our “duel or showdown” that weekend. Runners and fans actually had real heroes to root for back then….The result of all of the above? A lot more general sports media and general sports fan interest and focus back then. Just a whole lot more excitement and drama to the race. Today our “villains” are turning out to be the dopers and the NGB and IGB members who are corrupt. Now we can also root for “straight vs. juiced!?!” if one can tell the difference anymore…..

    • Thanks for the reply, Craig. Athletes need to properly concentrate on their training. That is why it is up to the promoters in the sport to frame the competitions as best they can for public consumption and interest. Simply putting a lot of fast men or women on the starting line isn’t enough. There must be context and conflict to engage an audience beyond the hard-core followers. I don’t see that emphasis being placed, nor even the admission that the need exists in the first place.

      TR

  2. I really like today’s post, Toni.

    It would take some doing, but I think the Kenya/Ethiopia rivalry is one that clearly has not been promoted enough in our sport.

    Tad Hayano just released the 2016 Tokyo Marathon invited athlete list. For Edna, the challenge is pretty black and white: to stand a chance of Olympic selection in the cut-throat Kenyan marathon world, she needs not only to win the race, but almost certainly to do so at nothing slower than 2:22. We knew this going in when we committed her to Tokyo a couple of months ago.

    But what really stood out to me is the Ethiopia/Kenya battle that will go on in the women’s race. Edna and WC silver medalist Helah Kiprop up against five very strong Ethiopian women. That’s the story…done.

    Particularly in a Spring when all top US marathoners are off the WMM circuit, the storylines at those 3 WMM races need some angle if there is any hope of drawing US attention.

    I always thought Carey Pinkowski should have gone all in at Chicago 2006 and simply made the women’s race Deena vs. Constantina…you had them coming off that epic duel in 2005 when Deena was greatly “assisted” by her pacemakers to the detriment of Constantina, and they went 1-2 in a pair of national records. As it played out in 2006, Deena was in Berlin, Constantina in Chicago, both in top shape, both running the fastest half-marathons ever in the first half of those two races. Maybe not exactly white hat/black hat, but certainly it would have been a better storyline with them facing off in Chicago.

    The Japanese races do a pretty fair job of building up the top characters. I fly to Osaka next week for the women’s marathon, which is almost certain to decide one, if not both, of the remaining two Olympic slots. I guarantee you the Friday-evening pre-race show and the broadcast will play up the rivalries of the various women all after the same Olympic ticket.

    This probably gets back to the team concept you often wish existed…in Japan those teams do exist, and the head coaches are as much a part of the team rivalry as are the athletes themselves. The Japanese team system would be a good one for Nick Symmonds to study as he fights to expand T&F sponsorship opportunities here in the US.

    I’ll see you in LA, right? Post-Osaka I’ll stay on in Japan to visit Kyoto, then the Marugame Half-Marathon (Diane Nukuri races there) the following weekend, then Diane and I take the same flight mid-week to LA to watch the Trials.

    BR

    Brendan Reilly Boulder Wave, Inc. P.O. Box 4454 Boulder, CO 80306-4454 USA Tel. +1-303-554-0597 Mobile +1-720-280-2689 http://www.boulderwave.com Follow Boulder Wave on Twitter and Facebook

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    • Sorry, Brendan, I understand your sentiment…. but, with all due respect, “Kenya vs. Ethiopia” really doesn’t cut it or draw much sports fan or media interest here in the USA. The average American will just say “who cares?” Different names/faces every other year…. or so it appears. Also, the lack of out of competition PED testing in both countries makes most of their performances suspect to the hard core distance running fans/athletes, anyway, and has for a long time. Back in my day, many distance runners “adopted” a running hero to root for…and most Americans chose other Americans… although Rod Dixon and Rob DeCastella and John Treacy and Nick Rose drew their share. To not appear racist… some even rooted for Michael Musyoki who graduated from UTEP, married an American gal, and stayed to compete on our road race circuit. There were other Africans who resided in the USA for a while and developed a following because they could speak decent english in pre or post race interviews….but I just can’t think of them all right this minute. The gradual demise of American distance running stars who could race frequently across the country… back in the late 80’s and 90’s… along with the influx of just too many foreign athletes who couldn’t speak our language … for just a few weeks per year…..cost our sport dearly in terms of general sports fan and media following. We are still trying to recover from that. And, recently retired American distance runner icon, Ryan Hall, only racing 3-4 times a year (or so it seemed to me) certainly didn’t help.. as much as they could have.

      • Craig,

        Year-long contracts to race on a circuit could go a long way toward not only ginning up interest in the sport from an athletic standpoint – though that would take several years to seed the ground – but it would also give such a circuit a firmer control on the doping problem. Notwithstanding what the IAAF or its member federations do in this regard, a circuit could institute even harsher standards of their own, considering they would be the source of income for athletes who might be see merit in joining a group dedicated to increased purses and visibility but a corresponding responsibility, as well.

        Also agree that we need our athletes racing more than four times a year to increase name recognition. With a circuit there would be minimum standards of participation, but since all would have the same number, though athletes might not be at 100% all the time, they would all be on even ground.

    • Hi, Brendan. Yes, the Kenyan/Ethiopian rivalry is a natural, but it doesn’t travel particularly well. To the mainstream sports fan there is little distinction between one East African and another. The question is how to enlarge the interest/connection beyond nation of origin? That is where elements like teams, leagues, circuits and the like come in. The Japanese have figured this out. I just wonder why the rest of the sport refuses to consider such options. Evidently as long as the masses show up and pay those hefty entry fees, all is perceived well. It’s all above my rather meager pay-grade. Safe travels, and we will see you soon in L.A.

      TR

  3. Excellent post, Toni. I believe you had a similar post espousing almost identical points sometime last year, and they ring even truer today. There is rarely any excitement anymore; merely hearing another name with no recognition inspires no passion.

    Craig, I was rooting for you in those glorious road wars of the 80s in Falmouth, Lynchburg, et al. How I miss the rivalries and excitement!

  4. Connors & McEnroe in tennis vs. Borg, the iceman from Sweden. Both of the U.S. guys were abusive a**holes . . . . but I watched!

      • Chris and Toni: On that point…. how could I forget the Coe vs. Ovett rumbles (or shoulda been rumbles if they hadn’t dodged each other so much!). OMG, that is why Margaret Thatcher and the UK veered away from USA foreign policy for once… and sent their team to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow…. where the exact opposite of “expected” happened…. Ovett won the 800 and Coe won the 1500. Thatcher knew she would have been impeached by the GB public if she had kept them from competing in Moscow Olympic Games. Definitely Seb Coe was the middle/upper class guy w/ the white hat… while Steve Ovett was the middle/lower class blue collar guy w/ the black hat. Their performances at 800-1 mile or a bit longer…. captivated the running fans and sports media around the world and not just in the UK for about 6 years. Just think what it would have been like today with the advent of the internet running/track sites as well as social media. Since they were trading ownership of the world records at middle distances for several years…. it was probably the best track rivalry in T & F back in my days.

      • What about Mary Decker vs. the Soviet and East German women back in 1983 or Decker vs. Zola Budd drumbeat leading up to LA 1984….. in the first one… Mary definitely wore the white hat against the communist women who were probably PED aided…. but in the 2nd instance I am not sure the Mary did not wear the black hat based on the tragedy that unfolded in the 84 Olympic Games 3000 and Zola’s reaction during and after that race might have earned her the white hat as a young but definitely “good” gal! The media definitely used that mounting rivalry to heighten interest in Olympic T & F back then…. and what unfolded during the race just kept it going for weeks afterwards.

  5. There have been a couple of rivalries more recently, the most pronounced being Bolt v. Gatlin (white and black hat there for sure). In distance, it seems that just when a rivalry gets a little traction (Farah v. Bekele on the roads, Solinsky v. Rupp, Symmonds v. Solomon), one of the protagonists falls off with injury. Jenny v. Shannon is becoming worth watching, but I think there is a decent chance that Jenny might have to jump back into the steeple for Rio.

    Another strong rivalry, which is very real and therefore maybe a bit more delicate politically, is NOP v. Bowerman. Maybe there is a column there, if only a yearly summary of the sate of the rivalry at year’s end.

  6. Toni, great column, and perhaps the rivalry here may need to be between coaches (Salazar vs. everyone) or dare-I-say, NIKE vs. Brooks vs. Saucony athletes. Or should we be so quick to forget that many of our distance runners are college grads and we should still mention their schools in the same breath as their names (Ryan Hall of the west coast Ivy League school Stanford vs. Galen Rupp of the blue collar Oregon system that Bowerman and Pre made famous). My wife does not want to run until after watching our alma mater, Iowa, take on Purdue, tomorrow (Sunday) in men’s basketball. We graduated in ’79 and ’81 from Iowa, and still loyal Hawkeyes!

  7. Toni wrote: What Meb Keflezighi gave us in Boston 2014…was a guy leading that the crowd actually cared about and was openly rooting for.
    ******************************************
    Toni, don’t you think the Boston crowds were cheering for Shalane those first 22 miles two years ago and for Desi all race last year?
    ******************************************
    As a marathon viewer, I find the top elite runners ducking each other to enter different races they can expect to win and score a payday. You won’t get the Black Hats v.s. the White Hats at the same event without the corrupting mega bucks for appearance which will turn the race into an exhibition.

    • Marty,

      Thanks for chiming in. I was talking about the men’s race, of course, not the women’s. Sure folks were rooting hard for Desi and certainly for local hero Shalane. But whether we admit it or not, the men’s race is still the primary focus and a deeper competition. It would not be as shocking for an American woman to win as it was for Meb, because professional women’s running is still developing when compared to men’s.

      Keep reading and replying,

      Toni

      • And I agree that events competing with one another for a limited takent base just waters down all the fields and robs the public of the best competition. I think all the money, appearance, prize, hotel, travel, meals etc. should be lumped into one prize purse like in golf and tennis. The athletes should pay their own way, put themselves up and even pay an entry fee. But the prize purse would be much bigger and then the public would get a better show as the stakes would be not just higher but visible.

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  9. Many issues, as usual. The “glory” years not only had competitive Americans, but also a broad diversity of countries represented. US, Australia, NZ, GB, Kenya, Ethiopia, USSR, etc. Seemed exotic and mysterious. We learned about the rest of the world while still rooting for The Home Team. Remember when Bubka told us he was Ukrainian? Wow, just figured he was Russian, as did many others, which is why he told us. Now in distance running, its Kenya v Ethiopia. Its not that they are black – heck, Abebe Bikila, Kip Keino, Henry Rono, etc celebrated. Within the context of a big ole world. Imagine if it was just white guys from US and GB? Maybe some would be interested for awhile, but it would get boring.

    Add in US tv announcers who sound like they are narrating the 4th of 10 intervals in an off-season workout. Remember Charlie Jones (THE voice of track and field imo) with Frank Shorter? Man, I felt I was watching something special. (And it _was_ special, they just upped the excitement.) Even Jim McKay, who often seemed out of place for the NYC marathon (hey, I’m a fan of his otherwise), still showed that the network cared about our sport. The athletes don’t help much either – very task oriented, head down, focused on the big meet of the year, if there is one. Gawd help us if its not an Olympic or WC year. Winner: “I’m happy with my effort, feel like I’m on track to get to where I want to be (at the end of next year).” Even the winner doesn’t seem to care, so why should I?

    Add in that we justifiably believe “everyone” is doping, and this matters more in a “pure” sport than “skill” sports.

    Sorry, but I didn’t watch NYC or Boston because of Fred Lebow or whoever runs Boston. I didn’t watch Joanie destroy the rest of the world at LA84 because of Peter Ueberroth. I watched those because I anticipated a meaningful, historic, exciting race involving people I knew and cared about. Of course Fred and whoever runs Boston and the others meets put the field together that made it meaningful. But rivalries come about naturally, and interest naturally follows. And interest is held if “the product” actually exists. How many people are gonna pay for the next Mayweather fight now that they saw that they paid $100 for a boring fighting style? Then again it must have been important because we knew how much money they were making. I have no idea how much money athletes make. And athletes seem to have no idea why people make money in sports: “I work hard, I represent the country, I deserve…” No, you don’t. No one gets paid to put a ball through a basket, hit a ball over a fence, or run across a line while 11 others try to hit them, and you sure as heck ain’t gonna get paid to run faster jump higher or farther or throw something farther than someone else. They are all paid to “put butts in seats.” For whatever reason, _except_ that you believe you are owed it.

    I agree with Craig (yea, me! 🙂 : doesn’t have to be good against evil. I sure didn’t hate Greta, or Rod Dixon, or Beardsley, or…maybe that sort of thing is needed to bring the attention of the entire world, but heck, the current thing doesn’t even bring the attention of what used to be the base audience.

    Now add in the corrupt “ruling” bodies.

    Given all this, why _should_ I care?

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