When applied to American politics the theory of Perverse Incentives shows how gerrymandering congressional districts has led to gridlock rather than problem-solving – ostensibly the purpose of Congress – because gerrymandering incentivizes congress people NOT to work with the opposition party. When applied to today’s running world, the theory of Perverse Incentives shows how the focus on the individual-event management, while improving the quality of events, has constricted the potential growth and development of The Sport, which would necessitate a unity of purpose across multiple event platforms.
Today, a decade and a half into the 21st century, The Sport of racing has been subsumed by The Activity of jogging. The tail, we might say, is wagging the dog. And regardless of what Lord Sebastian Coe, the embattled IAAF president told viewers on the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon telecast recently — “when people see elite performances you can see how it pulls them into competition. It’s almost a perfect storm” — the opposite, in fact, is true.
There has been a total break between the front of the pack and the back of the pack. There is an almost complete lack of interest in the sport of foot racing by the experiential runners, much less by the general sports fans. And now with the devastating accounts of drug abuse and institutional corruption haunting the IAAF, the sport is in even more desperate condition than ever.
“Fast times once meant something,” says Patrick Lynch former elite athlete coordinator for the Boston Marathon and long-time observer of the sport. “There used to be a slew of running writers who could contextualize those times, people like Bert Rosenthal of Associated Press, Joe Concannon of the Boston Globe, Neil Amdur of the New York Times, Dick Patrick at USA Today. They’re all gone now. There are no running beat writers left anymore in the mainstream press.
“Just as the three-point line came in to play through the American Basketball Association to differentiate it from the established NBA – along with the red, white, and blue ball – when the NBA absorbed the ABA, NBA executives saw that their same old brand of basketball needed to adapt to grow. In the same sense running has become stagnant, well past due for a change. Events are successful but their races are not.”
Though he built the elite fields at the Boston Marathon from 1986 to 2012, and before that was very active in the Boston running community, Pat Lynch has always cultivated an opaque public persona (you can’t even find a picture of him on Google!). That he is willing to speak openly now only underscores the seriousness of the case he makes.
“The leadership in the sport failed to draw people’s attention to the professional side of the sport,” Lynch continues. “People see the event as the sport, but it’s not, the race is. I couldn’t tell you who won Boston last year. We know Meb won in 2014, because it was so unusual. But in general, the race makes no impact at all, because the focus is on the event. The race has become perfunctory, an after-thought.
“And it’s not just about the East African domination. There’s no hook to it. When Fred Lebow first gave a Mercedes-Benz to the New York City Marathon champion, people said, “Oh, my! That guy won a car!” Today you have to raise the stakes once again, find a way to professionalize the sport in the public mind, because now there is no structure to it at all. We are still dealing with appearance fees, which is a total holdover from the old amateur days. All that does is keep the stakes invisible to the public. But you can’t tell me people wouldn’t watch $1 million prize race!”
Since the second-wave running boom began with the 1998 Rock `n` Roll Marathon in San Diego, all the energy and creativity in running has been focused on the back end activity of jogging. Events evolved with bands, cheerleaders, universal finisher’s medals and a robust charity component. But perversely, though the front end of the sport became faster and faster, it simultaneously stagnated completely in terms of public interest.
Presently, the closest thing road running has to a league is the Abbott World Marathon Majors. With its six events, title sponsor, and a year-end million-dollar prize, it has managed to brand itself to a degree.
“You would have thought they would have created the Abbott Cup by now at the end of the year,” says Lynch, reflecting golf’s Fedex Cup or NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. “But it doesn’t happen. The big prize has yet to be branded. Why isn’t that a no-brainer?”
As the IAAF struggles to deal with its drug and corruption scandals, the environment is primed for a new model. From my reading of how other sports transformed into a fully professional status separate from, yet supportive of, their amateur side, it was through their events establishing a new protocol.
Events are the spine of the sport, the linking elements with the sponsorship, the civic connections, the roots – and at present, the integrity – to pull it all together. Athletes come and go too quickly to be the linking element; they flow through the event architecture. For its part, governance was created to serve as a regulator, but not as the conductor of the enterprise (beyond National and World Championships and the Olympics). Somehow that got turned around and the government crowd got to be in charge of what should be a private, event-driven enterprise. And, of course, look what the IAAF has done with the privilege.
“The sport never separated to become truly professional,” Lynch says. “It confused the public as the sport never left amateurism. It’s like the athletes and events never grew up and left home. They wanted Daddy to handle it. And now look what they got.”
The old-line races like the Abbott World Marathon Majors are no longer the Mom-and-Pop shops of running’s original boom years that used to take in $5 entry fees and handle paper entry blanks. They are significant operations with full-time staffs. They just need to put the elements together. It is all sitting there, with the sport calling out for it desperately.
“The first generation of running leaders is gone,” concludes Pat Lynch. “What has risen up in their place is the bureaucracy beneath them, and multiple boards of directors. What’s been lost is true creative leadership. The original running boom leaders had to be creative just to get noticed, consider the five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976. The current crowd doesn’t have to be creative. They just keep repeating the same old story over and over again. Everyone is satisfied with the status quo. There’s no electricity in the racing anymore. It’s just reshuffling the deck every year. There’s no impact, no juice.
“They have done a great job improving their overall events with charities and increased participation, etc. But the sport of foot-racing, which used to be the focus of the event, is now just an afterthought. They bring in a bunch of anonymous athletes, shoot the gun and let them run. People used to say, “I’m running with the best in the world”. Today, that doesn’t resonate anymore. “I’m running with Mary Lou, because our daughters are waiting at the finish line”.
“But racing is different than jogging. Events have the jogging element down pat. What’s past due is the turn toward improving the structure of the sporting element, because that’s where the need is most critical. Today the sport is suffering from myriad problems and indignities. A professional structure is what would give the public an avenue to once again follow the great sport of running. And you can’t tell me there aren’t minds out there to do it. They just need to take a brick out of the dam and let the creativity flow.”
You might say that the whole thing is just downright perverse.