BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

We’ve all been dumped. And it hurts. But the immediate reflex is always to beg her/him to take us back. “Please, just tell me what to do. I’ll change. I swear.”

Yeah, well, we all know how well that works, rarely – OK, never! So you pick your self up, reset your dignity, and eventually move on, generally to greener pastures. Which is what distance running ought to do after getting dumped by the IAAF. 

If ever there was a time for the sport of long-distance running to say adios to their governing body, now might be exactly the right time. After all, the IAAF just said adios to you by eliminating the 5000 and 10,000-meter races from the 2020 Diamond League, the IAAF’s premier track & field summer tour, which, in time, will only lead to their elimination at the Olympic Games, as the IOC continues to press for fewer track athletes to make room for breakdancers, skateboarders, pole-dancers, and kite-flyers.

There’s been a case to be made for this separation for years with the massive growth of road running across the globe. But the ties that bind long distance running to its parent organization were historic and seemingly of mutual advantage. But that connection no longer seems so apparent as the ties continue to come undone.

A group of American and international athletes attempted to form a professional road running organization in the early 1980s to move the sport away from the hypocrisy of amateurism and toward open professionalism. The athletes of that era held the upper hand in the development of road running. But they were seduced back into the IAAF family when prize money was allowed under a fig-leaf called TAC-TRUST that never quite turned into professional running.

Today, the connection between the back of the pack and the front of the pack, which was what developed and nurtured the first running boom of the 1970s and 80s, has been severed for at least the last 20 years. 

With every event a universe of one; with the flood of unregulated athletes from East Africa allowed to rush in without any control or cooperation to help develop their non-athletic, but vitally necessary, professionalism to help market the sport; with the lack of a central commissioner’s office to develop rules and regulate a cogent racing calendar – just this year the PGA Tour moved its Players Championship from May to March so their tour season would climax earlier before the NFL arrived to suck all the media attention back to the gridiron – we have seen the activity of running for the masses become completely separated from top-end profession of racing. 

It was 20 years ago today (March 14) that Running USA was founded. The organization put out a Facebook post celebrating that milestone, explaining its organizing principle as “From its inception, Running USA was created to improve the status of road racing in the United States through services and benefits to its members, creation, and growth of a global conference, marketing and education, and much more.”

No, it wasn’t! That’s not why RUSA was formed.

“The whole idea was every other sport became big by the quality of their star athletes,” recalls Basil Honikman who shepherded Running USA into existence.  “The idea was to build our sport through the development of stars to increase the appeal and importance of the sport.”

After a decade of decline, “We needed to make stars again,” agreed Ed Froelich of the QC Times Bix 7 Road Race, one of the founding events of Running USA.  

It was only over time that RUSA morphed into an industry tub-thumper with a tertiary goal of helping develop American talent.

We have witnessed a similar arc, from the elite to the everyday, by the Abbott World Marathon Majors. Begun as a means to shine a brighter spotlight on and raise awareness of marathoning excellence, now in Series XII, the focus is as much on Six-Star finishers as the top pros – though rampant performance drug positives have severely tainted the upper echelons of the sport. 

But the World Marathon Majors could do something about that, too. By expanding their own tour to include more than just six international marathons a year, which can’t be formed into a true circuit due to the training and recovery requirements of the event, AWMM could sign athletes to an annual contract rather than an individual race contracts.  By adding World Distance Majors to the World Marathon Majors, they could develop their own more stringent drug protocols, media responsibilities, sponsorship opportunities, TV contracts, team dynamics.  It’s all there. 

There is a famous Maya Angelou line, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Well, the IAAF Council just told the distance running community who they are for the second time.  Last weekend in Doha, Qatar the IAAF scrubbed the 5000 and 10,000-meter races off the Diamond League schedule. The first telling came in 2011  when the IAAF gutted the World Cross Country Championships, turning the only annual World Championship running event into a biennial event. 

Seems all the IAAF wants to do is reap profits off the marathons. And even there the IAAF’s parent IOC has diminished the event, no longer finishing the Men’s Olympic Marathon in the Olympic Stadium as the lead-in to the Olympic closing ceremonies.  

Is the distance running community just going to sit back and keep taking it? There’s an opportunity here, as well as a need. Will anyone take advantage of it?

Stop asking to be taken back. The IAAF doesn’t want you.  It’s time to move on. 

END

14 thoughts on “BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

  1. Ok, let’s start brainstorming… LDR leaves the auspices of the IAAF/IOC and we strike out on our own. Then what? We still have to get eyeballs and fans (as well as participants). From what I’ve observed fans like to sit on their butts and be entertained. WE CAN DO THIS!

    One idea would be to team up with stadium motocross (google is your friend) and let the runners race on the course they’ve laid out for the riders. The dirt is already there so the added expense of laying out a complete course could be minimal — unless of course you wanted to make it super exciting by having the runners blaze up some of the “dirtied-over” stadium steps right by the seated fans as the multiple camera-equipped drones stream live to the venue’s Jumbotrons. Imagine these modern day gladiators catching air over the multiple jumps as mud holes and obstacles call out the strength, skills and stamina of the most adept. You could throw in a devil-take-the-hindmost to keep things cookin’ and, well, you get the picture. If that doesn’t get people interested we could loose the lions, tigers, kraken and trebuchets.

    Other ideas?

  2. Could a large running club like in NY or elsewhere sponsor a series of meets that would include 5000m and 10000m. Or maybe another sanctioning body like the AAU? Could they raise enough money to draw world class talent?

  3. Could a major running club like in NY or elsewhere, or another sanctioning body start a series of meets where the 5000m and 10000m included? And come up with the sponsorship money to draw world class talent?

  4. Agree with you Toni, though talk about it being a VERY uphill battle, since LDR contributes so much money to USATF, IAAF, IOC, directly or indirectly. I never did like feeling the layers of control.

  5. I hate to contradict some well known runners….but the problem in Europe is not where the next Geb or Bekele is going to come from but the next Bedford, Viren, Puttemans is going to come from….and they aren’t coming….those types of athletes are all playing European soccer where the money is astronomical to anything in track…and spectating interest is all focused there…it’s even popular here with the EPL… I’m surprised the DL meets have survived this long…. it is hard to sustain interest in European track when so few Europeans actually compete anymore.

    As for an American union…. the Major marathons don’t really need the elite athletes anymore….as I’ve written before they are all just big Jogathons …. the Chicago Tribune barely has any stories on elites but oodles on slow people…and sponsors are going there too as this recent New York Times article shows.

    • Very interesting. This reality merits an expansive conversation, but Ya gotta like Mina Guli’s attitude:

      Of course, just like the elites, everyday runners experience their own pitfalls, whether they have sponsorships or not. Guli was scheduled to run her 100th marathon in 100 days in New York City on Feb. 11, but she fractured the shaft of her right femur and could only run 62. The one in New York went on, anyway, with runners who she said had come out to raise awareness of the global water crisis, and she crossed the finish line, set up in Central Park, on crutches.
      “I’m just a normal person who set out one day to make a difference in this world, and it turned out running was a way to make it happen,” she said.

      And ya gotta LOVE Mirna Valerio calling it for what it really is:

      “She’s got a passion for being outside and testing and challenging herself and her own evolution and development of someone who’s passionate about the outdoors,” Strick Walker, chief marketing officer of Merrell, said.

      Valerio said the support for nonelite runners had been a long time coming, though she understood that like all businesses, the companies were investing in everyday runners because they thought that doing so could make them money.

    • It breaks my heart this after following the sport I love for a whole life. Skipping school and staying up all night to watch the big duels over 5000 and 10000m . Zatopek, Viren, Bekele, Gebrselassie, Komen, I dont care where you come from the champions of champions are true masters of the sport.

      The arrogance and self promoting of Sebastian Coe has always scared me. Turning himself in the wind of the public. He is trying the please the majority in stead of protetig the sport. What a sad moment, killing your family to please someone else. What a weak disgusting character and there are many of them in the IAAF.

      Lets leave before we are axed down by some crazy family member…

  6. Excellent piece, Toni; probably one of your strongest ever. And for those of us who have been around the sport long enough, we know that it is another case of the sos (same old sh*t).

    I agree; it is high time we took control of our own destinies. The IOC and IAAF are diminishing us and our sport. We are decades past due for being recognized as professionals, and being professionally organized.

    I’m in! How do we start?

  7. TAC – or USATF (whichever it was at the time) did a similar thing to itself. Rights fees for marathons and other road races to be declared national championship races or Olympic Trials races (marathon) was a huge line item in the TAC budget. Most of that money was supposed to go back to the LDR Committee to further develop distance running in the US – but it didn’t. It got absorbed into the general budget and distance running development got little help from it. The more things change, the more they remain the same – it’s about politics, power and money…..”follow the money” deep throat said. How true.

    • I would be pissed if I were the Atlanta TC, ATC more than likely paid USATF a hefty bid fee (non-refundable) to be put in the pool of contenders to host trials. They put together a tough course ostensibly to generate a true head to head race versus a time trial. Now they find out that the new IAAF Q standards exacerbated by the stupidity of USATF has relegated the trials to just another marathon. As Toni stated maybe it’s time to start something new. Break away from the absurdity of governing bodies who seem to be unable to do anything but destroy our sport with politics, greed and ineptitude.

  8. I’m wondering where the IAAF thinks the next Haile Gebresallasie is going to come from. Or Bekele or Mo Farah or Eliud Kipchoge. These have been some of the biggest stars of the sport over the past 25 and they all became stars on the track before moving up to the marathon. Yes, Usain Bolt has been bigger than all of them over the past decade, but a sport needs more than one star – a lot more – to be successful. It would be like baseball promoting Mike Trout and telling all of the pitchers their services were no longer needed.

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