Ever wonder why average runners have to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but the elite runners don’t?
Well, for one thing, there is a competitive marketplace for the top athletes and invitations with appearance fees are the means of recruiting them. It’s a holdover from the sport’s shamateur (sic) past but one that has proven resilient to change, despite the introduction of prize money purses in the 1980s.
We have just gone through a small tempest at this year’s Boston Marathon after the Boston Athletic Association separated the “invited” men’s field from the Wave 1 runners for the first time – by two minutes – thereby bringing the invited men’s field into line with the elite women who have started 28-minutes ahead of the men for the last 15 years.
Depending on how you view the sport, this is either a welcomed and needed change or a travesty. Highly regarded scribe Jonathan Beverly in Podium Runner holds to the latter, calling the new separation policy “puzzling” and contrary to the spirit of the sport.
“It’s a seemingly minor change,” writes Beverly, “one that will economically affect only a few sub-elites who might have a breakthrough day. But it ensures that an anonymous runner will never stand on the podium, putting to rest the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race—a notion that is arguably one of the greatest aspects of our sport. Now, if you’re not one of the few pre-selected to be in the first start, you are, quite explicitly, running in a different competition.”
Jonathan has it exactly right except for the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race where the average Doheny is theoretically competing against the best in the world. That has always been a misnomer. The thousands of citizen runners don’t run against or with the pros, they run concurrently. Only a historic weather event like we had in Boston 2018 can wipe enough pros from the field that one or two “regular” runners can end up in the prize money positions from the mass field.
The example Jonathan gave of an uninvited runner winning the March 17th New York City Half Marathon missed the point that Ethiopian Belay Tilahun may not have been invited, but he was definitely elite.
Besides, Boston already makes a distinction between charity joggers, recreational runners, and Boston Qualifiers. That, among other things, is what makes Boston special. But until the sport, in general, makes that same distinction between BQs and professional-class runners, we are going to have this amorphous amalgam that the public doesn’t understand much less take seriously as a sporting event. Instead, they view even major marathons as more like, you know, the Pope’s visit, or the tall ships sailing into Boston harbor, primarily a big civic event.
Running has always been torn between its activity and sporting sides. In the early Boom years, the distinction wasn’t as clear as there was no prize money in play. But the time is long past for the sport to develop in the public mind the sense that this is a highly prized international sporting contest that also has a huge train of recreational runners on the same course at the same time. But what that long train is doing is not professional in the same sense as what Lawrence Cherono, Worknesh Degefa, Scott Fauble or Jordan Hasay were doing in Boston last Monday.
When the BAA and NYRR hosted the Women’s and Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials for the 2008 Beijing Games, they didn’t run the Trials on their traditional Boston and NYC Marathon courses. They designed completely separate courses and ran the Trials the day before their traditional marathons. Not every runner was eligible to compete in the Trials, either. You had to earn that privilege by strict qualifying standards.
How does someone become an “elite” runner anyway? By getting an invitation from some race director? There are no standards to define ‘elite’. Every weekend there is a new designation of “elite” as defined by that particular race.
Yes, the Walter Mitty dream of an everyday runner coming through on the day to get on the podium against the best in the world, that will disappear. But in its place running will take a major step toward becoming what it has always threatened to become, but has never actually been able to achieve, being seen as a truly professional sport.
This past weekend in Augusta, Georgia, there may have been 2000 golfers good enough to play in The Masters Tournament, which Tiger Woods made so memorable by winning his fifth green jacket and 15th major title overall. But there were only 87 players who had qualified by PGA standards to compete. They weren’t invited, as such, they qualified, even the handful of amateurs. And 87 is a small field by every-week tour standards where the usual Thursday morning starting grid holds 156.
Almost every road race that gives out prize money, much less appearance money, invites its elite field. In fact, listen to the word, “elite” field.
A professional field by definition is elite, but an elite field is not necessarily professional. In fact, the sport has been burdened by the lack of professionalism for many years. There is a difference between being elite and being professional. Professional connotes standards and responsibilities, not just acumen. And that is what running has always missed. That’s why we invite an elite field, but we don’t qualify a professional one.
Yet what the sport has desperately needed since the peak of the first running boom is a class of athletes who earn their playing privileges, conduct proper sponsor and media obligations, and then battle for increasingly larger prize purses that approximate what other professional sports award their top performers. Without a coherent system in place, that won’t happen.
We just witnessed the 123rd Boston Marathon this past weekend. It gave us a thrilling men’s race up front and inspiring participation by the 26,632 finishers. But there’s a distinction to be made between people who have a professional approach and responsibility and those that have a recreational approach. We need to codify that distinction. The public needs to know that running, like golf or tennis, is a professional sport.
That is why professional marathon fields should have entry standards just like the regular Boston qualifiers have standards. All the Abbott World Marathon Majors could establish those standards to help professionalize the sport, whether it’s a top-20 place in one of the other majors, a top-10 performance in other IAAF bronze, silver, or gold-labeled races, whatever. There are any number of ways an algorithm could be put together.
But the way it is now, the minute the public heard that the elite men in Boston would start separate from Wave one, there was blowback as opposed to understanding.
Same thing happened last year when three women in the mass start ran times that would have placed them in the top 15 had they started in the earlier elite group. But the non-elite-field women weren’t eligible for prize money until blowback from social media led the BAA to pay off the top 15 finishers irrespective of which corral they started in.
And remember in Chicago in 2008 when Wesley Korir came out of University of Louisville with a degree in biology, but not a big enough athletic name to get into the invited field? After starting five minutes behind the ‘elites’, he finished with the fourth best time of the day. Race director Carey Pinkowski quietly gave him equal fourth-place money.
But in both cases, Chicago 2008 and Boston 2018, we see what happens when there are no across-the-board professional standards. You get a squirrely situation, public blowback emerges, and you are forced to make propitiations to get out of a PR hole.
By setting standards for a professional classification in all six Abbott World Marathon Majors, running would help create a system for the average runner to aspire to something even greater than being a Boston qualifier. And it would further professionalize a sport in dire need of such recognition, standards, and the corresponding responsibilities.