1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.
The running boom is over, and you can blame the millennials. So says an article in the Wall Street Journal quoting statistics from, among others, Running USA showing a significant slide in running event participation from the peak of 19 million in 2013 to 17 million in 2015.
With running being one of the few recession-proof industries during the height of the 2008 Great Recession, a headline like this and its supporting statistics might come as a shock to some. But it was only a matter of time before this bubble burst, too.
The oldest of the baby boomers are now 70 and beginning the long generational bleed out. Gen Y is still involved, but the Miilenials are off into something else, reflecting the natural rebellion one generation mounts against their elders – “this isn’t music!” But in this case it’s also a consequence of teaching an entire generation not to compete, drilling into their skulls the idea that every one of them is special and a winner, giving them all medals for showing up, and leading them to believe that 60% of them deserve an A for “just being you!” before shoving them out into a decidedly Darwinian world. Oops, I guess we didn’t prepare them very well.
What’s particularly amazing about this is America was built on competition. From the hand-over-fist pioneer spirit that drove Manifest Destiny westward (not saying it was a good or moral thing, just noting a hard-charging, can-do national spirit), to the high-risk, big-reward entrepreneurial spirit that created the greatest economic engine in history, America thrived on competition.
I remember being at a Super Bowl party one year, and explaining to a German friend how USA Today would rank the commercials in tomorrow’s paper, not just not write about the game. Her reply was a tersely Teutonic, “everything with you Americans is competition.” And I had to agree. “That’s how we know we’re American. Maybe not totally self-aware, but goin’ after it with refreshing vigor.”
But sometime in the 1990s we began leveling not just the playing field, but the results’ page. Now, instead of everyone getting the same opportunity at the start and an outcome determined by individual achievement, we began engineering the same outcome for all. Nike’s famous slogan “Just Do It” inferred striving, but soon simply doing became the functional equivalent of doing well.
These days, everything has to be social and protected and non-competitive until the inevitable softening begins to show. But rather than do something about it, we began to salute what we had with plus-size models and wider coffins. Finally, competition is viewed as a destructive force. Only then do we begin to see how a backlash can form, leading to the rise of a very unconventional candidate who trumpets a return to a greatness now gone.
But these are the sweeps of history at play, the larger changes that only become apparent after they show up as data points.
For the Baby Boom generation running toward self-fulfillment was in its own way a backlash against the sit-ins and marches they staged during their college days when they thought they could change society at-large. In the wake of their fractured idealism they were shown a new path by Frank Shorter at the ’72 Olympic Marathon in Munich.
Inspired by Shorter, and informed by new medical studies led by Ken Cooper in Dallas, the Boomers began working on the one thing they had any chance of changing, themselves. But in reducing the fight to an internal one-on-one battle, in their aggregate the generation did in fact help change the world.
And now the world is changing again as time first begins to march, then trot, then run flat out until it’s away and gone.