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.
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.
Consider 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.