Though it was a Frenchman, Michel Bréal, who first suggested that a distance race be held in the 1896 Olympic Games and be called the Marathon, it may be that fate, too, had a hand in the formulation. You see, Athenian democracy, described as the first known democracy in the world, developed around the same fifth century BC time frame as the myth of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger whose run from Marathon to Athens telling of a great military victory over an invading Persian force was the genesis of our modern sport. And what is the Marathon but the most democratic of all sporting events where all are welcome to participate and the winners are decided by open competition? It is in the light of that history that I make the following observation.
The 2018 BofA Chicago Marathon has set up another great open field for October 7th. Announced yesterday, it is loaded with past and current champions from around the racing world. 2018 Boston, Dubai, Prague, Paris, Rotterdam, and Tokyo champions have all signed on. But hidden deep within that collection of mostly anonymous talent is something this sport has longed for since the days when Bill Rodgers first challenged Frank Shorter in the short mid-1970s window when both were at the top of their game, a great mano a mano duel.
Here we have defending Chicago champion Galen Rupp and his former Nike Oregon Project training partner Mo Farah signed and sealed. It’s something the sport (and track and field) has been starved for and lax in developing for years, a truly intriguing match race. The last such match race worth its spit was staged in 1996 when Olympic long sprint champion Michael Johnson of the USA took on short sprint champion Donovan Bailey of Canada over an intermediate 150-meter distance in Toronto following the Atlanta Games. And though the race itself fizzled with Johnson pulling up lame midway, the promotion itself was a big success.
Now, for the first time in memory, we have two well branded Olympic distance medalists, men who used to be teammates, going head-to-head for the first time in the marathon, both looking to bust a fast time on one of the fastest courses in the world. Accordingly, Chicago is reinstating pacers after discarding that crutch following the 2014 race. And it makes perfect sense because both Rupp and Farah are past track burners who have yet to break through in terms of marathon times on par with their 10,000 meters PRs.
Here, then, is a natural rivalry that people might actually want to see, one that can be marketed, Galen versus Mo,m. And then they go lard it up with all these admittedly fast but anonymous extras who do nothing but steal the spotlight from the one thing that might get average people to stop and pay attention. Why? Cause we’ve always done it this way?
Listen, this is mostly a contrarian’s viewpoint, I know that, but why would Chicago want Boston champion Yuki Kawauchi, or the other anonymous fast fellows, when they already had a unique marquee match in Rupp versus Farah? While both Rupp and Farah have national records on their agenda, Kawauchi is no time-trialer. He has only run 2:08 three times in 80 career marathon starts, his best, 2:08:14, coming five years ago in Seoul. And though he won Boston this April, few believe he would have done so had the weather not have been so God-awful, wiping out the East African thoroughbreds who were too finely tuned to function in the wind and rain and chill.
But pacers on a flat course in Chicago in decent conditions? They’ll go out in 1:02 flat to set up Galen and Mo. That will just eliminate Yuki from the get-go because his half-marathon PB is only 62:18 from 2012, one of only two sub-63s in his career. He can’t run 62-pace and expect to survive. So why invite him to a time trial event? Just for his marquee value? As a hedge against bad weather? Makes you wonder why he isn’t heading to NYC where there is a hilly course and no pacers where pure racing is best rewarded. Did NYC take a pass on Yuki? Or, as I heard from Brett Lardner of Japan Running News, it’s just Yuki being Yuki. He has never run Chicago before, so let’s go do it! No appearance fee required.
Adding past Chicago champs Dickson Chumba (2015) and Abel Kirui (2016) to the mix, okay, maybe, they certainly earned the right to return. But 2017 Boston champ Geoffrey Kirui and Japan’s Suguru Osako (2:07:19 PB) and the rest? Perhaps if the sport had done a good job marketing its fastest runners over the years a field of this depth would have many followers anxious to root for their particular favorite. But for two generations distance running has allowed anonymous, interchangeable champions to come and go like ghosts.
Nobody in Chicago knows any of these athletes, and there isn’t enough time leading in or on race day to create a rooting interest. As such, though they are elite as hell, they aren’t branded, and accordingly don’t add to the promotion, just diffuse the spotlight from the two Main Eventers.
Look what happened last year with Nike’s Breaking2 Project in Italy. OK, they had the Eritrean Zersenay Tadesse, and the Ethiopian, Lelisa Desisa, but basically, it was Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge tucked behind a revolving set of flying wedge pacers trying to break two hours. Total focus! And millions of people watched live on YouTube. Total Focus worked! They told one story exceptionally well, not dozens or hundreds of stories poorly, which has been the bane of broadcasting this sport for the last two generations.
Is it a risk to build a pure match race out of the marathon? Absolutely. What if one of the guys gets hurt or breaks down early like Michael Johnson did in Toronto 1996? Well, that’s why you still have a women’s race and the wheelchair push-rim division to serve as a backup.
Personally, like all true race fans, I like the best field possible and may the best man win. But this suggestion is nothing more than a bid to engage the general public, not to assuage the hard-core. And to break through, the suggestion is that a binary choice would best accomplish that goal – though that, too, may be tilting at windmills.
This sport is dying for attention of the right sort. You think anybody cares if Kenneth Kipkemoi runs in Chicago 2018 besides Mrs. Kipkemoi? Remember when the pacer Ben Kimondiu didn’t drop out in Chicago 2001 and kept all-time great Paul Tergat from the Chicago winner’s circle?
Sometimes more is less. We almost had it here. Why not swing for the fences? What’s to lose? There is always 2019 and beyond to bring back the democratic tradition.