NEVER MIND THE MATCH RACE

Well, so much for sticking my head inside the lion’s mouth outside the Chicago Art Museum. 

I’m getting hammered pretty badly across different fora and websites for my last blog post suggesting that the Chicago Marathon ditch its deep elite men’s field for a match race between defending champion Galen Rupp of the United States and his former Nike Oregon Project teammate Mo Farah of England. 

OK, I get it, bad idea.  And I even understand why. Sorry. At least I spurred a little extra interest in the race.

Just for the record, though, I don’t hate Chicago, and it’s not that I’m a Boston guy, either. I just want the sport to grow because I have invested my own forty-year career in his behalf and see the consistent slide in interest in the game, even as the participation model has begun to give way over the last three years as well. So I suggested a wild outlier to see if it might grab a little extra attention like Nike’s Breaking2 Project did last year. 

I should have known better. The six Abbott World Marathon Majors have a proven track record and an established format. They aren’t the events that are having trouble attracting entrants or attention anyway. At the same time, it’s not that a match race is such a horrible idea, it’s just that it shouldn’t be conducted at one of the majors. It should be a separate promotion like Breaking2. 

How about this, several people have remarked on the 2010 Chicago Marathon as the most exciting in recent memory. That year, too, they had a loaded men’s field, but the race boiled down to a two–man duel over the final 5 km between 2008 Olympic gold medalist Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya and 2010 London Marathon winner Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia.

But what made that final 3 miles so compelling was that the winner of that year’s Chicago Marathon was going to emerge as the World Marathon Majors champion for that cycle as well, and collect the $500,000 in bonus money. It was the money that heightened the interest, not the Chicago win, or that it was those two particular guys racing. Stakes matter. 

So instead of recommending a match race at 2:04 pace between two preselected runners, how about we just hope that two (or more) of the aces invited by Mr. Pinkowski in 2018 go shoulder to shoulder with the same gusto as did Sammy and Tsegay in 2010? 

Chicago.  It’s a great town with a great marathon, and a race director who has devoted his own career to making it so.

I’ll just remove my head from the lion’s mouth now, and shut the F up for a while and root along with the rest of you come October 7. 

END

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6 thoughts on “NEVER MIND THE MATCH RACE

  1. Interesting contrast between TdF and road racing (marathons specifically). For much of the Tour, there’s the same repetitive action there is in a marathon, and you could make the analogy that both events are like an NBA game, only the last 2 minutes matters. But somehow I find myself watching 2+ hours of TdF coverage, whereas during most marathons I’ll take a 5 or 10 minute break to go get something to eat.
    A notable recent exception was Boston ’18 – the god-awful conditions made it extra-ordinary in the truest sense, and then there was the tension/drama of wondering if Desi was going to hang on for the historic win.
    Maybe it’s because I’m transfixed by watching the cyclists go hurtling down unfenced mountain hairpins at 60 MPH and knowing it’s barely the same activity as when I go out for an hour’s ride to the beach on my bike, whereas even though I know the top marathoners are running 26 miles faster than I can run even one, the difference in effort/skill just doesn’t readily translate – they’re just fast joggers (admittedly, REALLY fast) to the camera.
    What attracts us to any sport, IMHO, is the spectacular, almost superhuman act – leaping over the outfield wall to rob a home run, hitting the pin from an almost unplayable lie, catching the game-winning TD pass with 3 defenders draped on you. Sorry, but until we figure out a way to convey how equally superhuman elite runners are, watching them on TV will remain a ho-hum pastime for even the most dedicated of fans.

  2. A major reason for the lack of interest in competitive running in the US, imo, is poor television presentation. Toni, perhaps you can help provide insight as to why. Seems like if they go to the trouble (and expense) of setting up tv cameras and bringing in announcers, they would want to give us something meaningful.

    I watched the 1983 NYC marathon shortly after getting in to the sport, not knowing anything really, and it was spectacular. Beautiful visuals, crossing the bridges, NYC (a foreign land to me), Marty Liquori setting it up, giving us splits, putting them into context, etc. Jim McKay was out of his element, though ok. Some dude from Tanzania (Gidamis Shahanga) surged to “a suicide pace” (a phrase my sister continues to tease me about), then another unknown from England took over and was rolling along in his first marathon (Geoff Smith), finally overtaken in the last 2/10 by (unknown to me though Olympic middle distance runner) Rod Dixon in his first (I think) marathon. No US runners in contention beyond the first few miles. And wow, what an amazing _race_, I was glued to the set the entire time. The ‘84 Olympics were also spectacular, from track and field to the marathon, getting to learn about runners from all over the world, learning about tactics, etc. A few years later I showed my girlfriend-now-wife tapes of this and she got into it just from that. The ’88 Olympics were also well done imo. It helped of course that it had the greatest voice in T&F, imo, Charlie Jones, and Marty Liquori. Charlie’s call of the mens 100m was a classic thriller (followed of course by the Ben disaster.)

    But since then, it seems “the networks” decided that they could make this thing take off by watering it down, telling us touching stories about everyone. Best if someone died to inspire the athlete to greater glory. (84 Olympics had some of this, but it seemed more intelligent. Or was it the fault of that Olympics, since the general public was more engaged since it was in LA, and they had some big name stars to sell and the networks though they could reproduce this everywhere?)

    Remember the stunt of having Rod Dixon jump into a marathon (NYC) midrace with a “helmet-cam” to give us an “in-the-race-view” a few years after his NYC victory? Freaked out the leader, who seemed to think George Jetson was challenging him. Hilariously absurd. They tried to anoint winners, ignoring everyone else. When it didn’t become a major sport (aka major dollars), it seems they therefore put less and less effort into it. Perhaps it didn’t help that Marty gave honest assessments of US athlete chances, eg the 88 Olympic Trials mens 1500m. (“Well, the US is sending an inexperienced team…”). Apparently “we” are supposed to want dishonest ethnocentric cheerleading.

    I then “discovered” the Tour de France in the 2000s, again because the TV coverage was amazing. Sure, they have more money for the production, but it wasn’t really that. The announcers assumed we were either knowledgeable about the sport or capable of learning about it, and they increased our knowledge. They conveyed their excitement to us. They told us about people who were not in the lead, or “expected” to win. I don’t know what the ratings comparisons were, but I doubt a large US audience. (The doping thing completely wrecked it for me, and I haven’t watched since Lance was exposed.)

    Tim Hutchings, Craig Masback, Frank Shorter, and some others, including you, Toni, did and do an excellent job imo. But the networks continue to want to tug at our heart strings, anoint winners, tell “human interest” stories. Everything except show the actual competition. My apologies to many of the announcers, who no doubt care and want to do well, but they don’t. One sounds like he is announcing track intervals, conveying zero excitement, and apparently second is the first loser, even if its an amazing and otherwise “important” performance, and he is lost if the winner is not one of the favorites they hyped. Another, “you youngsters out there…” and “go down to your local track and try to run…”, ugh. They cut away at critical times, seemingly oblivious to the actual action. In England I once watched announcers make chess and darts thrilling. Seriously. And ESPN3 shows hot dog eating contests, cornhole, and fishing competitions, and, bizarrely, they at least make it sound exciting. Not that I watched beyond the 5 minutes it took to determine that I was not having acid flashbacks and that this was really happening, but still.

    So what’s the deal? Is there any hope for non-intelligence-insulting coverage? I get it, they won’t make huge piles of money, but with so many channels to fill, can’t we get something? This, along with meaningful doping controls and punishments, and we stand a chance of actually growing the sport.

  3. I agree with ditching the appearance fees, but there is another option, publicized appearance fees. I am fine with knowing that Shalane, Amy Cragg, Galen, etc. are making $100,000 to race AND finish, or whatever they command. And state forcefully that this is to enable their training, their rehab, their coaching, etc. We don’t know what they earn, and why not? It might inspire the next soccer player to reconsider. I could go on, but I just want to see real racing, who doesn’t!?

  4. You’re right about the money thing…it would be great if races like Chicago just got rid of appearance fees and had straight prize money…plus bonuses for fast times…and make it big… I don’t think the public has the slightest clue there even is prize money…it’s barely, if ever, mentioned in the Chicago Tribune…so Rupp and Mo are running…zzzzzz the public says…The Tribune hasn’t mentioned it once….except some very small item…

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