MAKING IT MEMORABLE

Ten years ago today, the late Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya outdueled Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede to win the Chicago Marathon and the $500,000 bonus as the World Marathon Majors Series IV champion.  With the two tiny terrors trading surges over the final mile, Chicago 2010 was one of the most memorable in Chicago history.  But there had been other, even closer, men’s races in the past. Who could forget Patrick Ivuti going shoulder-to-shoulder down Columbus Drive against Jaouad Gharib in 2007? The race was the closest in Chicago history and required innumerable TV replays to determine the outcome on a brutal day of record-setting 88 °F (31 °C) heat.

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

What elevated Chicago 2010 to epic status was the understanding that whichever of the two beat the other would earn the $500,000 WMM bonus.  Would it have been a great race without the $500,000 bonus?  Sure, but like London 2003, New York City 2005, and Boston 2019 – all scintillating final meter sprints – the memory to all but the hard-core running community faded.  To the average viewer, it was the money in Chicago 2010 that spiced the dish.

I recently watched a documentary on the late Hollywood director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, The Birdcage, etc.). 

“An audience is expecting something,” he said. “The first thing an audience asks is: ‘why are you telling (showing) me this?’  And you have to have an answer.  It has to have a purpose. It can’t just be a series of scenes.”

Without stakes that are perceived as significant – national, world, or Olympic title – what differentiates the race for first from the race for 18,751st?  Everyone has a story at major marathons. Why is this one more intriguing when I really don’t know who any of these people are because we only see them once or twice a year?

When we see the University of Minnesota drop its men’s track & field program (only to see the outdoor version resurrected after a strong backlash), what we are seeing is the ripple effect of athletics at the international level squandering its once robust position in the public consciousness. 

After criminally corrupt leadership (judged so by a French court of law), a tacit acceptance of a generation’s worth of drug use to skew records, and an endless series of paced, time-focused events that failed to engage fans with meaningful rivalries, the sport has seen its image tarnish and its audience disappear. Collegiate athletics was made vulnerable by how the sport at the international level had been conducted.   

University of Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said the cuts to the athletic department were meant, in part, to keep the university within Title IX compliance.  But Title IX legislation was meant to improve women’s opportunities, not diminish men’s. Nonetheless, that has been the unintended consequence.

So when scholarships got cut to 12 ½ in a sport with over 20 events, we saw coaches construct teams made up of points aggregators rather than full track and field squads as teams traveled to invitationals in search of qualifying times rather than school v. school competition. We saw the apogee of the absurdity three years ago when Oregon beat Georgia for the women’s NCAA title (64 pts -62.2) without the two teams ever engaging head-to-head in the same event. Oregon earned all its points on the track, Georgia on the field.  That’s like a virtual competition on the same site. 

“I don’t care about the sport anymore,” has said more than one long-time observer.  How can we expect the public to care?

Fast forward to Valencia, Spain 7 October 2020 where two special athletes went record hunting in special new track spikes.  International broadcaster Rob Walker got emotional during the last lap of Joshua Cheptegei’s successful 10,000-meter record run (26:11.0).  Having been at the pointed end of the 2010 Chicago Marathon with a microphone in hand, I understand fully how emotions can rise in a heightened moment.

All smiles: Rob Walker with new 10,000m record man Joshua Cheptegei in Valencia

But other than the hard-core running fans, do you think anyone else was thrilled with what they were watching in Valencia?  Interested?  Sure.  Thrilled? Probably not.

“Flashing lights and smashing world records, is this the future of athletics,” asked a mocking CNN headline the next day.

Where was Rhonex Kipruto in Valencia, perhaps the only man on the planet that might have given Joshua a run for the record?  It was like when Kenenisa Bekele pulled out of the London Marathon just days before the race.  The whole Eliud Kipchoge vs. Kenenisa build-up was shot. Sure, that’s the risk an event takes in billing itself as a duel ahead of time, but it was that mano-a-mano set up that built up interest in the event. The fact that Sara Hall‘s desperate kick for second-place over Ruth Chepngetich garnered the most press attention, rather than Brigid Kosgei’s dominating win, tells you what people want to see.

Sara runs by Ruth

In Valencia, other than the record, what were the stakes?  As far as the general public was concerned – empty stadium, no competition, series of pacers – they were witnessing a lab experiment for a new product under controlled conditions.

I had one responder on my last blog (CHEPTEGEI’S MARATHON FUTURE) saying, “I’m very pleased that you appear to be writing in support of both the 5k & 10k records being bested. I recall you were much more disbelieving when Ayana broke the 10k women’s record in Rio.”

I believed it because of the new techno shoes.  Would they have broken the records if Letesenbet Gidey and Joshua Cheptegei wore the same shoes as Tirunesh Dibaba did in 2008 or Kenenisa Bekele in 2005? Would I like to see wattage meters, or some other measuring device, to compare one athlete’s effort over another’s? Absolutely. 

Only four men have ever run sub-26:30 for 10,000 meters: Paul Tergat (26:27.8); Haile Gebrselassie (26:22:75); Kenenisa Bekele (26:17.53), and now Joshua Cheptegei (26:11.0). In boxing, they stage computerized virtual fights pitting the champions of different eras against one another.  It’s a fun “what if” game to play.  Well, which one of the four, sub-26:30 10k runners would win in a match race where all four were in their world-record form wearing the same shoes? 

We are seeing the same focus on things rather than people in other sports, too.

In basketball, we’ve seen the sport devolve into a three-point shot launching competition (except for Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat).

In baseball, we an endless home run derby with what one scribe called “a conga-line of pitchers” streaming out from the bullpen. Where is today’s Bob Gibson, the recently departed St. Louis Cardinal great who completed a record eight consecutive World Series games? Or, Whitey Ford, the Yankess “Chairman of the Boards”, who also passed away this week, who threw a record 146 World Series innings with ten wins, both all-time bests?

In golf, the story has become U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau driving par 4s with the need for only three clubs in his bag: driver, wedge, and putter.

But when you look at ratings, you see each sport slowly losing its audience. People want to see rivalries and personalities out of which records emerge.  You have to be rooting for somebody, not just something.
(Please excuse the long rant).

END

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