Before America’s Civil War people said ‘the United States of America ARE’, thinking of the country as primarily an aggregate of individual states rather than a single national entity. Only after Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox and the re-knitting of the Confederate States into the union did people begin to say, “the United States of America IS”.
The difference is subtle but instructive. For one might equally argue that the Abbott World Marathon Majors continue to be more an aggregate of independent events rather than a coherent series made up in six parts. They (as opposed to it) have unfortunately found their time together also running concurrent to a tainted era in the sport, as now four of their women’s series titles have fallen to doping disqualifications – that’s two Lilya Shobukhova’s , one Rita Jeptoo, and now one (sample A) Jemima Sumgong doping positives that have marred what was intended to be series celebrating athletic excellence.
Is it any surprise then that the six AWMMs just this year decided to draw down their top prize for Series XI beginning this weekend in London by half from $500,000 to $250,000, while earmarking a new $280,000 to charity? Yes, they have also included smaller payouts to second and third prizes in the series, $50,000 and $25,000, but overall the runner’s purse has been cut 35%.
Hard to argue the move. You can’t keep publicly awarding prizes that a year later you have to take back because your winners have tested positive for banned performance enhancers. That’s not the message you want to be announcing. After getting burned so many times it’s not so much a sport right now as much as it is a big mess. And historically you sweep messes away.
I have already written how the sport might bolster its attack on the doping problem by increasing blood testing of the athletes till their arteries collapse – TESTING: PUTTING THE MONEY WHERE IT NEEDS TO BE – but let’s also look to the WMM competitions themselves. Boston down, London next.
All these events were born and reared individually within their own communities, creating a strong individual character to each of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors. Still, every major features a men’s pro race, a women’s pro race, two elite push-rim wheelchair division races – which are now being supported for the first time by the AWMMs series with a $100,000 purse, $50,000 won Monday by Switzerland’s Marcel Hug and America’s Tatyana McFadden. And for the first time the Boston Athletic Association formally recognized the handcrank winners with official inclusion in awards presentation and cash rewards. That is a lot of overlapping stories to tell, and not easy to keep straight when most of the competitors are not well known to the public before the race.
The IAAF World Championships and the Olympics don’t stage a single marathon race where the women start 30 minutes before the men, though the U.S. Olympic Trials do. Instead they have two distinct events, one opening the championships, the other closing them. In the 1970s and early `80s when women were just starting, we would see dominant performers like Greta Waitz, Joan Benoit, and Ingrid Kristiansen. But today’s women’s fields are deep, strong, and well matched.
But do you realize that never in modern history have all the best marathoners, women or men, ever toed the same start line at the same time? Maybe the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles 1984 came closest, but every field is watered down by the myriad other competitions scheduled around them, even the majors.
In the spring Boston and London are just one week apart, same with Chicago and New York City in the fall. If we want to make this sport more of a public spectacle rather than a feel-good public parade that happens to crown a gaggle of winners, why don’t all the A-level World Marathon Major eligible women line up at one race, say Boston, one week, then all the men do the same the following week in London? The next year they switch. Tell one story well, rather than bunch of stories less well.
Former New York City Marathon head Mary Wittenberg (now CEO of Virgin Sports) agreed with that concept at a panel discussion we had over the Boston Marathon weekend, hosted by Tracksmith at their new Back Bay store at 285 Newbury Street.
This year in Boston there were 18 invited women and 20 men. What if the field was 40 deep for one gender with prize money to match? Wouldn’t that all but guarantee close finishes in the final 2K, just like having 156 starters on Thursday morning at the weekly PGA Tour golf event guarantees and exciting back-nine finish on Sunday afternoon. It’s no more than a numbers game.
“By what organization of political forces, by what laws or institutions can we best secure the greatest amount of good character? To Aristotle or Plato the State is, above all, a large and powerful educative agency which gives the individual increased opportunity of self-development and greater capacity is for the enjoyment of life.” – From Aristotle’s “Ethics”
As currently constituted, the Abbott World Marathon Majors remain more of an independent group individual races rather than a series made up of six events. Until they find a way to change that, they will remain AREs rather than an IS. Aristotle and Plato might even approve the result.