CAN RUNNING PULL ITSELF BACK FROM THE BRINK?

With a Warrior Games like course that has jaws dropped throughout the Twitter-sphere, there’s a real excitement for Saturday’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark. The hunger has been even further driven by biennial scheduling of what once the most competitive annual footrace in the world.  So, yes, Aarhus is a true God-send for a sport still reeling from recent disheartening news.

The amputation of long-distance races from the 2020 IAAF Diamond League tour – along with the reduced quotas for all athletics’ events in the 2020 Tokyo Games as the IOC announced the inclusion of surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing, and breakdancing for Paris 2024 – is a sobering recognition that 1) the sporting world is more competitive than ever as it expands and diversifies, and 2) that the arrested development and long-time corruption endemic to the sport of athletics – as well as its inability (or unwillingness) to grow out of its Balkanized amateur past into a fully functioning professional future – has now come up against Recognition No 1. 

It also illustrates that the emotional tether that once linked the best long distance runners to the great herd of joggers who run behind them every week across the globe – much less to a robust fan base – has unraveled. 

Yet in one sense, the IAAF’s reduction of distance running is nothing more than a reflection of what distance running has done to itself.

By focusing primarily on its general jogging population, running allowed its top-end product, its Show, to fall into disrepair and irrelevance. It didn’t happen overnight, but it certainly did happen.

While long-distance running developed over the course of many decades through a wide cast of nations, over the last generation it has seen the top talent emerge primarily from two, Kenya and Ethiopia, as the former great nations of the sport have all but disappeared. Just look at the number of former top European cross country nations who didn’t send teams to Aarhus.

This happened not just because of the drive and talent coming out of East Africa but by the sport’s inability to fold this new talent into what remains a divided structure that offers low-level prize purses while instituting no professional standards to control the unrestricted flow of inexpensive foreign labor flooding the market.

Over time, those forces killed off the domestic workers without ever helping develop the foreign talent’s professional media and marketing skills as they displaced the homegrown heroes who helped grow the sport. As a consequence, fans and fellow runners stopped caring who won.

Put on its back foot, the IAAF is now trying to reform into a tighter configuration to be more responsive to the larger sporting landscape where attention spans are shorter and options are greater. And that new configuration, evidently, does not include long-distance running.

Like baseball, athletics (track & field) is a 19th-century pastoral sport, perfect for the settings and pace of the 19th century, but too loosely configured and time-consuming for the 21st. 

Yet since 1969, when Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound to generate more offense, MLB has continued to tweak its rules to maintain its audience’s attention.  

The Designated Hitter – which eliminated poor-hitting pitchers from batting – arrived in 1973 in the American League, and today, the consideration is to make every relief pitcher throw to a minimum three batters to keep the game moving to conform to an ADHD society.

Athletics, on the other hand, has stood pat despite growing evidence that something pro-active was needed to maintain public interest in their sporting contests as new sports and activities continued to offer other more appealing options. Something new like team-based competitions on the track where each event is tied to every other one or outrageously difficult courses like we see in Aarhus, for instance.

As one long-time maven joked (sorta): “if you sign up 30 or 40,000 people, who cares if the winner from last year comes back?”

It’s been proven, people won’t pay attention to a string of anonymous runners wearing identical shoe company sponsored uniforms racing over 25 laps for 27 minutes vying for a prize purse which, even if mentioned, is a pittance compared to what other professional sports pay. (Don’t even start with Mike Trout’s $430 million over 12 years for baseball’s LA Angels).

Without stars or rooting interest, there’s no hook. And even world-record finishing times cannot make up for the absence of recognizable heroes. So even though today’s top marathon runners are bettering yesteryear’s stars by nearly two kilometers in time – 2:03 vs 2:09 – the public doesn’t care. In any sport, the key isn’t IT, it’s THEM.

Without fan favorites or large enough stakes to lend importance to the competition, the public has become inured to the charms of athletics and long-distance racing. Even the slower runners in the same fields don’t know who is racing up front, and the IAAF doesn’t think people will even watch for 12 1/2 laps and 13 minutes in the 5000 meters. 

Time is money, and the IOC (along with the IAAF) believe distance-running is wasting theirs. So from this point forward, the particular discipline of distance-running is being cut out to do its own thing, rather than being an integral part of a larger thing. Makes one wonder how much longer before other events are put on the chopping block, as well?

Of course, the demise of distance racing comes across as racist, even if unwittingly, because the vast preponderance of great long-distance runners hails from East Africa. But there is complicity there, too. 

After years of believing there was some hidden Eden laying high along the Great Rift Valley where a combination of altitude and lifestyle had developed the greatest runners ever seen, in recent years we have born witness to its more sinister underbelly, performance-enhancing drug use, which has tarnished the reputation of that part of the running world no different than any other. 

But when you add that dark mark to what is already a disinterested, disenchanted public, that’s how the existential moment can come so suddenly to hand.

(l->r) Porter, Jones, Lopes, Hutchings: World Cross Country 1984

Time passes and with it so do fads and sports and international hegemonies. We thought Americans and Europeans winning major races was the norm because that’s how it was when we first got involved in the 1970s. Look at the lead pack of the 1984 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in New Jersey’s Meadowlands: an American (Pat Porter, 4th), Welshman (Steve Jones, 3rd), Portuguese (Carlos Lopes, 1st), and Brit (Tim Hutchings, 2nd). Instead, as we found out, that was the anomaly. 

Then we thought the East African domination would pass just like the once dominant Finns in the early 20th century finally fell or the Japanese marathoners in the mid-1960s were eventually caught. 

But the separating forces of sporting domination, lack of a system to build recognizable stars, drug failures and corruption, and a stagnant prize pool have led to the erosion of all the former top nations in the game – Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, etc.

In the face of these recognizable factors, and competition from new sporting and quasi-athletic activities, the IOC finally put its foot down, and the  IAAF has been forced to capitulate.

What’s left is for the leaders of the long-distance running community to come together to recognize and address this disquieting turn in their discipline’s fortunes. I guess now we will see who’s who and what’s what. 

Until then, let’s enjoy Aarhus.

END

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