Happy birthday to Wilson Kipsang, the former marathon world record holder, who turns 34 today. Last year Wilson ran a strong second to fellow Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge in the London Marathon, 2:04:47 to Kipchoge’s 2:04:42. In today’s marathon world the two 30+ year olds are a bit of a throwback as youth (and drugs) has emerged as a dominant player.
We go through eras in sports, and unfortunately the current era in almost all sports will be linked to drugs (though institutional corruption is making a big play for attention, as well). The only good thing we might see ahead is that the era of drugs as the preferred method of performance enhancement is coming to an end as gene manipulation promises a strong future in the 21st century.
Notwithstanding such cynicism, there are other considerations beyond the dark side of sports. In the competitive world of marathon running I believe we can point to 2010 as the start of a new era. That year Kenya’s Patrick Makau beat countryman Geoffrey Mutai in Rotterdam and Berlin, by scant seconds on each occasion.
Mutai finally emerged from Makau’s shadow the following year with course record wins in Boston (2:03:02) and New York City (2:05:05), though Makau nabbed the official world record in Berlin that September 2011 with his 2:03:38 clocking.
Makau’s record was followed by Wilson Kipsang’s 203:23 in Berlin 2013 and Dennis Kimetto’s standing mark of 2:02:57 in Berlin 2014.
But each of these men did not come up through the track in either the 5000 or 10,000 meters — though Mutai did win the Kenyan 10,000 championship in 2010. Instead, as the money in the sport transferred from the tartan to the tarmac as huge participation numbers made the road distances the showpiece events in running, modern distance talent began skipping a track career altogether, and opted instead to begin at the half marathon distance before quickly graduating to the full 42.2 kilometers.
Gone were the days when the top marathon ranks were filled with men who couldn’t quite kick fast enough to get on the track medal stands, men like Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Rob de Castella, Toshihiko Seko, Steve Jones and Alberto Salazar.
Today, new young lions are arriving at marathon starting lines with no fear, only ferocity. The mature athletes like Kipchoge and Kipsang, though still dangerous, are now the anomalies.
Sadly, the whole scene has been infected by the disease of drug use, so who knows what’s true and what’s not? It is an existential threat to the viability of the sport as more and more events question the need for elite competition at all.
What makes such decisions easier is the long-running lack of personality and variety in the ranks of the world’s top runners. The drug issue, then, merely serves as the tipping point in a tilt that’s been leaning for far too long.
Also contributing has been the lack of interest in reinforcing the base that might strengthen the sport. Instead, road racing rode the pale horse of participation as if that plodder alone would sustain interest in a game once defined by pride and excellence.
Is it reflective to note that scientists now say running even 50 miles a week won’t lose you any weight? Not unless you run hard enough off to burn off the calories. Is that why there are so many one-and-done marathon bucket listers? And this trend toward less isn’t only to be found in running.
Beginning in 2016 the U.S. Navy lessened its body weight standards. Before 2016, the highest acceptable body fat percentage allowable for a recruit was 22% for men, 33% for women. But January 1 those standards went up to 26% and 39% respectively. The navy also instituted a 35-inch waist limit for men, and 39 1/2 inches for women. There had been such waist measurement limits before. Welcome to the modern world where expectations aren’t raised, standards are lowered.
Whether it’s grade inflation and social advancement over academic competence in schools, participation trophies and lack of scoring in sports, it all seems of a piece. In such an environment, how could we expect to advance a sport based in discomfort and tied to delayed gratification?