THE OLYMPICS: SUPER BOWL OR PRO BOWL?

Steph Curry skips Olympics

NBA MVP Curry opts out of Olympic tourney

It’s not like USA Basketball will miss a beat without him, but when two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors announced that he was going to skip the Rio Olympics to rest a sore knee, it just reinforced the belief that for many professional athletes the Olympics are more like the Pro Bowl than the Super Bowl, a nice consolation for the guys who don’t make it to the Big Dance.  The only athletes who rely on the Olympics are the ones in track & field, swimming, gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, etc.  And for track athletes, at least, the irony is that they have to cover up what little sponsorship they do have when the world is finally watching.

It is kind of crazy, right?  So how’s this for a counter-intuitive “do the opposite” consideration?

Because the Olympics only comes around once every four years, and then so completely dwarf the non-Olympic year competitions in running, rather than help build up the sport, the Games actually restrict interest to their very small window.  Thus, as long as the Olympics remain at the top of running’s mountain, the sport will never experience new growth, leaving athletes with no voice, much less a financial interest in the biggest competition that defines their careers.

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ROCK `N’ ROLL MARATHON HISTORY

Suja Rock `n` Roll San Diego

Suja Rock `n` Roll San Diego

San Diego, CA. — Who knew what lay ahead in the wild open spaces of the first Rock `n` Roll Marathon? Some even questioned the concept of rock bands strung along the marathon course in the first place. What does rock `n` roll have to do with San Diego much less with running a marathon?

Well, on June 21, 1998 the world got its answer.  With the snarl of a blistering guitar solo, the tight rhythm of a snare drum and millions of accompanying footfalls, the second wave running boom announced its arrival in a rollick of music, endorphins, and sweat.

Even before its first steps were run, there was the feel of a major marathon about it. Elite Racing founder Tim Murphy had conceived the idea while running the final lonely miles of the Heart of San Diego Marathon one year out along Friar’s Road to Qualcomm Stadium.  Wishing there were some kind of support along the road to help out, Murphy thought, wouldn’t it be great to have music to run to.

It took a long time for his idea to gestate, but the seed had been planted, and after a decade of developing his reputation as an innovator, Murphy saw his grand design come into full blossom in 1998.

No longer a simple feat of speed endurance, the marathon had been transformed into a 26-mile long block party through America’s Finest City.  Though there was a 35-minute start delay at Balboa Park due to some traffic issues out on the course, which led to a water-dousing through the first aid station, the high-spirited music rocking the sidelines caused an immediate sensation.

Afterwards the nearly 20,000 entrants from 30 countries and all 50 states passed the word, ‘You gotta try this one!” And that was before they got to the post-race concert that night featuring Huey Lewis and the News, Pat Benatar, and the Lovin’ Spoonful!

So, too, was year one’s field a group of intrepid explorers, 55% of which were women, the largest such percentage of any marathon to date, and pivot-point in the history of the sport.

Mike Long, the late Elite Racing athlete recruiter with Rock `n` Roll 1999 champs Tarus & Bogacheva

Mike Long, the late Elite Racing athlete recruiter with Rock `n` Roll 1999 champs Tarus & Bogacheva

The course, mostly around Mission Bay, still had a new-car smell. Nobody knew how fast it could be run until young Kenyan, Philip Tarus, busted a 2:10 opener for the men, with Russian women Nadezhda Ilyina and Irina Bogacheva battling just nine seconds apart at the finish for the women in 2:34. That told the athletes of the world, ‘This one is worth having a go,” especially after all the Suzuki prizes and prize money checks were handed out.

No marathon except New York’s five-borough extravaganza in 1976 had ever come on the calendar with such dramatic impact: The largest first-time marathon in history, the most ingenious show along the sidelines ever produced, $15 million raised for charity – the largest amount ever for a single-day sporting event — and to cap it off world-class performances by its champions. Thus was the foundation set for what has become a global phenomenon, the so-called second running boom. Continue reading

COMING AROUND AGAIN

GasparillaTampa, FL. — Certainly, I’ve been a critic over the years of the sport’s de-emphasis on competition in favor of fun-running and charity fund-raising, likening that trend to America’s de-emphasis on education in favor of grade-inflation and child buttering.  Jerry Seinfeld did a great bit Tuesday night on Jimmy Fallon’s second night as Tonight Show host on this topic, saying, “when we were young our parents didn’t give a damn about us.  They didn’t even know our names!”

But history isn’t linear, and pendulums have a habit of sweeping back in the other direction.  Thus, a quick survey of recent moves in the sport lead to a conclusion that competition is once again being noticed, even appreciated, and highlighted.

This weekend I am here in Tampa for the return of the Gasparilla Distance Classic to the ranks of pro racing. It’s the first time Gasparilla has invited a pro field to the streets of Tampa since 1997. And its a welcome return to what traditionally had been the best field of the year during the 1980s and `90s when Gasparilla was the first race of the year and everyone was anxious to get out of the cold and into Florida for a blistering 15K burnout. This year it will be a pro half-marathon with an American based field, which I will break down after talking with the athletes as they assemble. Continue reading

FORMER WORLD RECORD HOLDER KHANNOUCHI TESTING IN SAN DIEGO

Former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi with fan

Former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi with fan

“You never know who will show up here.”

The San Diego Track Club was just finishing its final workout of the year under Coach Paul Greer — 15 X 300 meters — when former marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi arrived at the San Diego High School track just after 7p.m. his left hand swaddled in bandages.

”I cut my hand this afternoon,” he explained, “and had to go have five stitches put in.”

Khalid was in town visiting his old friend and mentor Tracy Sundlun,vice president of Competitor Group, purveyors of the Rock `n` Roll series of races.  Tracy had helped establish Khalid  after the Moroccan-born runner emigrated to the USA following his win in the 5000 meters at the 1993 World University Games in Buffalo.  At the time Sundlun served as head of the MAC, the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, regional running federation for the New York City metro area.

But this trip west from his home in Ossining, New York wasn’t simply a friendly visit or a break from the cold and ice back east for the U.S. record holder and four-time Chicago Marathon champion. Continue reading

DUMBING DOWN, SLOWING DOWN

Declaration of Independence     In a recent keynote address at the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor lamented what she called America’s ‘alarming degree of public ignorance’.

“Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence,” she said, “and it’s right there in the name!”

Where former Justice O’Connor sees a dumbing down of America’s educational standards — the country reached its highest percentage of high school graduates in 1969 at 77% — one can also see a corresponding slowing down in America’s basic drive to compete.  Not at the higher end of business where we remain affixed as World No. 1.  Rather it is at our foundations that we find a softening.

First, no dodge ball (if you can believe that!), then “everyone’s a winner”, not keeping score in some youth soccer leagues, social advancement and grade inflation, and now a sudden reduction in the support of elite foot racing competition from a company that was originally named Elite Racing and still carries the now rather ironic moniker, Competitor Group.

And yet, at least for the time being, the owners of the Rock `n` Roll series of marathons and half marathons is maintaining the elite component at its European-based events.  I suggest this is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness in general, and should be of concern to us all.

And so, just as Justice O’Connor reflects on what can be done about the dumbing-down of America, we wonder what can be done about the slowing down of America, and the role top echelon runners might play in that turnaround.  Continue reading

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

People watch foot races for the same reasons they watch other sports: to root for the home team, see how the drama plays out (especially if the stakes are high), and to be inspired by those who do it exceedingly well.  At times, like at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, it is especially riveting when both hearts and minds become entwined in the outcome.  Caring who wins matters.

But over the last generation we have witnessed what was once a robust gathering of eagles from all parts of the globe be winnowed to a very small aerie in East Africa.  In that sense, we don’t have to wait and see who is going to win a major marathon or road race anymore, or how; we know before the starter’s horn ever sounds what will happen.  And when all (or vast majority) of the winners from the same region express the same reluctance to fill the spotlight from a marketing or media standpoint — in order to overcome the public’s inability to differentiate one from the other while helping generate sponsor interest — we see the potential end-game, as with CGI’s elimination of their entire North American elite athlete budget, reportedly $1 million U.S.

Yet in the wake of that announcement, even as the chat rooms and social media have lit up with either support for or condemnation of CGI, the only two athletes who have spoken out on the issue publicly that I’ve seen have been Josh Cox and today Ryan Vail of the U.S.  Perhaps I have missed others, but not one word has emerged from any of the world’s greatest runners, or their representatives.  Nothing.  And yet the CGI decision affects them more than anyone.  Perhaps there is a fear of speaking out, but even in that light do we wonder why CGI makes this kind of call?! Continue reading

CONVERSATION WITH NYRR PRESIDENT MARY WITTENBERG

NYRR Pres. & CEO Mary Wittenberg

NYRR Pres. & CEO Mary Wittenberg

(Since 2005 Buffalo-born Mary Wittenberg has been president and CEO of the New York Road Runners, stagers of the ING New York City Marathon and dozens of other both world-class and local events in the five boroughs.  I spoke with Mary this morning about the Competitor Group’s recent decision to eliminate its elite athlete program at its U.S. races.)

WERE YOU SURPRISED BY COMPETITOR GROUP’S (CGI) DECISION?

Initially I was surprised by the immediacy of its impact, rather than say it would begin in the year ahead.  But in group dynamics sometimes you see one person say something that someone else takes as personal, but really it’s not about them at all.  So I think this move may have more to do with CGI than with the sport itself.  What would be a more concerning indicator is if we see World Marathon Majors or major not-for-profit events drop support for pro running.  Those are the real bellwethers of the sport.

But what is clear now, and not surprising, is that Elite Racing had a core passion for the sport in Tim (Murphy), Mike (Long) and Tracy (Sundlun).  But it’s likely that what the first group (Falconhead Capital) bought from Tim was the Rock `n` Roll series, not the whole of Elite Racing.  We’ve been fortunate to have CGI keep some semblance of the sport going for as long as they did.

IS PRIVATE EQUITY COMPATIBLE WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPORT?

Private equity has a piece of Major League Soccer.  They can play a role in building ventures, but ultimately they are hard-eyed business people.  And professional athletes need to have a return on investment (ROI). Continue reading