CHICAGO 2018: TOO MANY CANDIDATES ON THE BALLOT

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. 

END

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16 thoughts on “CHICAGO 2018: TOO MANY CANDIDATES ON THE BALLOT

  1. I’m not a very good judge of the marathon as mass audience/spectator sport. I guess I’m weird but I’m totally focused on the elite races. I know who they are and follow the sport closely. So I’m really psyched to watch Chicago this year. My unease around the race is that, in my opinion, the local Chicago TV station has provided some of the worst marathon coverage I’ve ever seen. There has been some great coverage, as when you, Tony, were covering it and could hardly continue speaking when Wanjiru and Kebebe were battling it out in one or the greatest marathon battles of all time. But I’ve also seen some of Chicago’s worst, with cutting away for constant weather updates from their bubbly weatherwoman and lame interviews with spectators along the route. When Bekele ran Chicago they didn’t even notice when he was dropped from the lead pack. I hope, Hope, HOPE that with this great match-up that they provide the coverage that this marathon deserves.

    1. Here, here, Dave! They’ve got themselves a tremendous field. Let’s hope the coverage reflects its quality. But looking at it from a local broadcaster’s position, what do you do when the Wow! factor of the marathon -“I can’t believe they are running that far!” – has been removed over the years, and no one in your local audience knows any of the fast guys, but does/may have interest in one of the slower folks? Marathons are not easy to cover because the sport has never developed itself beyond its participation model. And with such relatively low stakes up front, the payoff doesn’t attract interest either. Except for that 2010 Chicago you spoke of when there was a binary choice, Sammy or Tsegay, with $500,000 going to the winner. That worked.

  2. Osako’s also a NOP runner. A lot of people in his home, where marathons are really popular as a spectator sport, are very excited to see him race his old training partners. I’m not a fan of his but it’s a very white, North American perspective to suggest he doesn’t bring anything to the race or somehow detracts from it.

    1. Yes, marathon viewing is very popular in Japan. But it isn’t in the U. S. Question: is that an issue worth addressing?

      If Osako can draw eyeballs, fine, then market the race as a NOP Showdown with Osako in the mix. My Match Race suggestion has nothing to do with skin color, national origin, religious persuasion or shoe size. It has to do with trying to generate interest outside the running community by reducing the focus to a binary choice: This Guy, or That Guy. Add a fella or two, like past champs, sure, go ahead. But concentrate the public attention somehow, some way. That’s all I’m saying.

      I personally think the field is great. And 20 years ago I’d be all over it. But the question before the sport these days is how to generate new public interest outside the Letsrun community.

      I think Carey Pinkowski does a great job in Chicago. He’s outdone himself this year, but ask any runner in the expo if they can name any of the invited field. Thanks for adding to the conversation. Toni

  3. This was painful to read. Wow. So, no more complaints about “participation” medals, ok? We’re all winners here…

    Last year it was set up for Rupp, and he rose to the occasion with a stunning 2:09, “erupting” in the final 3 miles as the Sun Times wrote. They even apparently paid AlSal to smile and pretend it was achievement. While we’re at it, I’m tired of the Patriots, Golden State, and Alabama, so lets just anoint championship games, inviting the 4th placers in each division to a tournament. And (as Kevin also pointed out) we’re soon to have a Tiger vs Phil match, since “everyone” wants to see that, and that large group of “annoying extras” better golfers are just in the way. So lets set up a Mo-Galen match race, on the Nike Campus of course. And we’ll stop the clock during potty breaks and selfies with “fans”. I’m betting 10s of people would watch that one.

    Would the last one leaving the stadium please turn off the lights?

    (And seriously, I swear I’m often accused of being too optimistic, encouraging, and positive, these are just the tears of a clown.)

    1. Rico, I feel your pain. Just try to understand mine. I have no allegiance here, except to the betterment of the sport. And it’s been inarguably proven over the last 25 years that bringing in a large group of anonymous fast people does not engage the public’s interest. Which is why so many stories are of the “everyone’s a winner” and “which charity raises the most” variety. Setting up a race might, but only might, narrow the public’s limited attention span and lend the sport some credence. It might blow up just as easily, but at some point isn’t it worth taking a risk? Toni

      1. I do understand your pain, Toni. But please, not this. How about working to ensure drug suspicions don’t make us discount great performances, work to eliminate the overwhelming influence of shoe companies (yes, one in particular), force the “ruling” committees to have the best interests of the athletes in all that they do, bring the trials to other venues (as much as I love Eugene), work to strengthen championing of college athletics, help athletes develop their personalities. Did I mention ensure drugs are out?

        I’ve seen you do all of these things. Sure, its frustrating to see things degrade. “Public” races are little more than selfie “look at me!” photo ops for posting to Facebook. But we’re a “minor” sport, and always will be. Lets remain “pure” so that we are ready when the general public is ready to pay attention again. Please keep telling it like it is, especially when its hard.

        We lowered our standards in the 90s and 00s, so that 2:12 seemed like a great time for Americans. Heck, we sent them to the Olympics! Then Deena and others (almost all female, fellas) showed what happens with true dedication and perseverance. So then Shalane, Desi, Kara, Ryan, Meb, Abdi, others, and yes, Galen, followed. Being the best in the world is not supposed to be easy.

  4. Toni, I always enjoy your thoughtful comments and I can agree, in theory, to a MO/Rupp match-up, though many runners don’t even seem to know those two. However, the thought of those two having to stay with pace, run a 2:04-ish national record, and still be beaten by some “upstart”/”unknown” (a la Jakob Ingebrigtsen, a 17 year old “boy racing men”) is also going to make for a game-on approach. Who can handle a 61-62 minute first half and still bag the win? The tension and the known fatigue will mount, the fit thoroughbreads will trounce, after the warm-up of the first 35 km.
    Screaming fast times at a fast course, especially after what might occur in Berlin, we can only hope and pray that cool weather occurs again in the Windy City. This is a field worthy of what London annually puts together, I think we can relish that here on our home turf.

    1. Mike, you are preaching to the choir. Problem is, the choir keeps getting smaller and smaller. We need to break out of the old mold to generate some interest in the wider public arena. A match race is just one suggestion. Thanks for jumping into the debate. Toni

  5. You make a perfectly good point. Sometimes less is more. Why ‘water down’ or muck up what would in effect be an epically intriguing match race? Now we’ll all be craning our necks trying to see where Galen is in that field of 13 and if Mo can be picked out of the lead pack. Much talk as of late regarding a Tiger/Phil golf off. But aren’t they competing vs. each other in the same tournament virtually every weekend already? Big difference though if the focus is narrowed down to just 2 main combatants with a long history and perhaps a little disdain for each other. Just a matter of time before this goes down. How could it not? Seems ego will prevent Chicago or N.Y. from ever considering such a set up though. For as long as I can remember, these two races have always trIed to one up each other. Why is Yuki in Chicago??? Because Pinkowski is paying him to be there, that’s why! Fred Lebow is rolling over in his grave in response to this year’s lineup in Chi town. About the only elite participant Carey failed to snag this year was the Pope himself. A tough act to follow, but as you suggest Toni, maybe a more riveting spectacle would have been to keep the focus on the 2 former teammates.

    1. Remember when the elite women were mixed in with the men? You couldn’t quite see the field or one woman would try to sneak ahead on the far side of the road on the outside shoulder of a guy. Then the sport showcased the women’s field. Focus is what the sport needs these days. That’s all I’m saying. Acknowledge the need. Try something new. Thanks for jumping into the mix. Toni

  6. “This sport is dying for attention of the right sort. You think anybody cares if Kenneth Kipkemoi runs in Chicago 2018 besides Mrs. Kipkemoi?”

    No one these days cares about anyone at the front anymore….30 years ago when people ran marathons as a race or trying to go as fast as they could yes there was attention on who was running….but these days marathons are just jogathons..40,000! Who cares about a dozen runners few know or care about…in Chicago the locals only talk about the race if they or someone they know is running and that is all they care about…the Chicago Tribune will have 100 stories on sad tales of first time marathoners for any story about the elites…in fact in all the years I lived in Chicago as a runner the only place I ever heard anyone give a toss about the elite runners was at the bar at the Hilton…

    The elite are a sideshow these days…sad as that is…

    1. True enough, my friend. Which is why the match-race suggestion has merit, even if it is to publicly ridicule the idea. Let’s get the general public to at least acknowledge the race. Tphanks for contributing to the conversation. Toni

  7. Great article Toni! I think there is something to be said for the “hedge” argument. Galen and Mo for sure is a marque match-up worth of single promotion. But, what harm in including the others? What if the weather is bad and sure enough there is Yuki. What if one of the past champions has an EXTRAORDINARY day and brings back the magic – there they are! What if a young up start pulls out something incredible! There he is. And, if Galen and Mo perform, well there u go too! Portfolio diversification for a marathon line up! Thanks for the article!

    -George
    http://www.georgeaparkerjr.com

    1. George,

      All your arguments and caveats ring true. Indeed, “what’s the harm?” But with 40,000 runners, all with a story to tell, to add another two dozen pros to the mix when nobody in Chicago has a clue as to who they are, just waters down an already disappearing sport. I ONLY suggest a match race to give focus to the game in the arena of public consumption. I thought the Nike Breaking2 Project proved that a narrow focus paid off in wider attention. And in this day and age, Rupp and Farah have an easily understandable rivalry to utilize in a one-off kind of race. Believe me, I’d much rather the sport were in good shape and the more the merrier. But it’s not. So doesn’t something have to be done to shake things up? Thanks for reading and replying. Toni

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