President-elect Donald Trump won this year’s divisive U.S. presidential campaign in part by touting an “America First” agenda. Seems he isn’t the only one thinking about the home team.
Lest we forget, the Boston Marathon is contested on Patriots Day, an April holiday in Maine and Massachusetts commemorating the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. Accordingly, Boston’s marathon in its early years was known as “The American Marathon”.
For the last generation, however, The American Marathon, like all marathons around the world, has become the exclusive province of athletes from East Africa. So overwhelming has the transfer of power become that the sight of American Meb Keflezighi pulling out a victory in 2014 was so unusual, such a welcome surprise, that even runner-up Wilson Chebet of Kenya joked, “I would have been the most hated man in Boston if I had caught Meb.” Keflezighi’s 11-second victory became the marathon equivalent of the Boston Red Sox World Series baseball win a decade earlier, as each snapped losing streaks of historic proportions.
Though Meb’s win in Boston was the first by an American in 31 years, even before Patriot’s Day 2014 there had been a resurgence in American running, in no small measure due to Keflezighi’s silver medal in the Athens Olympic Marathon 2004 and his New York City Marathon victory in 2009. Still, even with the occasional peak performance by Meb or Ryan Hall, there was no lessening of the East African domination, either. But the spirit of Meb’s win in 2014, and game challenges by Hall, local-born Shalane Flanagan and fellow Olympian Desi Linden (2nd, 2011) in the women’s races had whetted the locals appetite for more.
This week Boston’s major sponsor John Hancock Financial Services announced their American field for Patriots Day 2017, and it is as strong a home contingent as the old town has seen since the U.S. Women’s Olympic Trials were contested in Boston in 2008. While the international field has yet to be announced beyond defending champion Lemi Berhanu Hayle of Ethiopia, and 2012 champion Wesley Korir of Kenya, the American lineup will prove formidable. Five of the six 2016 U.S. Rio Olympic marathoners were announced, led by Boston debutant and Olympic bronze medalist Galen Rupp (a man coached by 1982 Boston champion and local product Alberto Salazar), 2014 champ Keflezighi, Utah’s Jared Ward, Marblehead, Mass. favorite Shalane Flanagan, and the aforementioned Desi Linden. (see linked JH announcement for full U.S. field)
Last fall in New York City, the NYRR also made a concerted effort to focus attention on the American field, inviting only a handful of foreign athletes to the five-boroughs. And the American men scored well, placing five in the top 10, after only having two in 2015. Unfortunately for the Americans, the foreigners in New York City 2016 were of the very highest rank, and after a first half controlled by the Americans, the foreign talent simply ran away from the Yanks in the final 21.1 km. 2015 IAAF World Champion Ghirmay Ghebrselassie, 19, of Eritrea won in 2:07:51, Kenya’s Lucas Rotich took second in 2:08:53. The top American was the ageless Abdi Abdirahman, 38, of Arizona, third in 2:11:23 (who will also be in Boston this coming spring).
This drive for a reordering of the marathon state is becoming a trend in the sport as evidenced by the three sub-two hour marathon projects that have made news recently. Though they are utilizing top East African runners for the attempt (because who else could they use?) the focus isn’t on the athletes, but on the time goal and maybe the equipment, too.
Except for Mo Farah in Great Britain, and Meb Keflezighi in the U.S. – both of whom emigrated as boys with their families from East Africa – only Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie among East African born runners has broken through into a wider public recognition. This at-odds combination of excellence and absence of star power coming out of East Africa has led to a same-old, same-old narrative at marathon events throughout the globe, and a corresponding drop in public interest in the sport. Paralleling that generation-long trend has been the massive growth of charity fund-raising at running events first witnessed at the inaugural Rock `n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998. $15 million was raised in that one race by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program.
As one-time Atlanta Track Club executive director and USATF Women’s LDR chairperson Julia Emmons said at a March 1998 meeting in Los Angeles to discuss the potential structure of professional running, “We are not golf or other sports. We are selling community events. Sponsors don’t care who is up front, no matter what country they are from. Sponsors care about community outreach.”
Allan Steinfeld, then head of the New York Road Runners, countered Ms. Emmons by stating, “if top Americans are in the race we could get network coverage. A team concept could work so the focus would be on more than 15 Kenyans.”
Whether the talent-laden American field announced for Boston 2017 can produce another win come Patriot’s Day only time and the quality of the foreign competition will tell, though Rupp has the talent and pedigree to run with just about anyone. Remember, the Red Sox won two more World Series in short order after they broke their 87 year drought in 2004.
But whether an American wins or loses on Patriot’s Day 2017, you can’t say folks in the sport aren’t doing what they can to tilt the odds toward a Yankee doodle dandy finish in the American majors, without making it too much of a set up job in the process.
Who knows, maybe they can get President Trump to fly in quick to hold the finish line tape if a Yank seems destined after Cleveland Circle at 35K.