ATHLETICS’ SISYPHEAN TASK

It is perhaps the most Sisyphean of athletics’ challenges, the movement to truly modernize the sport of athletics (track & field). Over the years, the boulder of professionalism has approached its summit on a number of occasions, only to see its fortunes tumble back down to the old status quo time and again.

Sisyphus by Titan

It’s as if the athletes were being punished for their sport’s leaders’ “self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness”, as was Sisyphus.  Yet the primary impediment to change has been the gravity of tradition, the weight of Olympic amateurism that defined the birth of organized sport in Victorian times and the consequent power vested in the federations-based model that grew to dominate the sport cradle-to-grave in the ensuing hundred-plus years. 

Attempts have been made to challenge the old order. In 1972, the International Track Association initiated a circuit of events in the USA and Canada featuring a coterie of well-known though aging stars. But the new association found itself unable to sign the stars coming out of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games because the “amateurs” could still make more money from under-the-table appearance fees on the federation-led tour than they could as “professionals” in open prize money events on the new ITA circuit.

Then, in the early 1980s when road racing in America was in its first boom stage, the top road racers attempted a breakaway under the auspices of the Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA). Their attempt at creating an independent circuit for professional road racing was eventually smothered in the cradle after the U.S. federation negotiated a semantic accommodation called TACTRUST which, though allowing the athletes to keep their winnings, retained the veil of amateur eligibility and federation control.

That temporary solution proved sufficient for the athletes of that era, but it left the old system in place and kept the sport from breaking free of its amateur chrysalis and perhaps taking flight as a truly professional sport.

In the meantime, the hallmark of the international system continued to be its inherent paternalism, a system that treated athletes first like serfs in feudal bondage and then as independent contractors without the collective bargaining power to determine their own fate via a more balanced system.

The persistence of financial corruption and self-dealing by past leaders of this federations-based system has been the one through-line that has defined its rule. And now under new leadership, the system’s solution to track’s shrinking viewer base is the elimination of events to reduce the sports’ TV window from two hours to ninety minutes. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

5000 METERS IN MEDIAS RES

“In medias res”, meaning “into the middle of things”, refers to works that open in the middle of the plot rather than with background or other exposition, which is brought in later through dialogue, flashbacks, or description. 

Famous examples of “in medias res” are Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and every Bond film ever made.

On March 10, the IAAF Council met in Doha, Qatar where it announced new Olympic entry standards for Tokyo 2020, and declared its intention to modify its annual Diamond League tour by, among other things, making the 3000-meters the longest track event on the schedule, also to begin in 2020.  Essentially, that would eliminate the 5000-meters altogether, a decision taken to lower the TV window for the 12 weekly Diamond League meetings from two hours down to 90 minutes. 

That decision, however, was also met with harsh criticism, especially from the twin distance running powerhouses of Kenya and Ethiopia for whom distance running is all but a national identity.

So let’s think about this a little more.

What if, that’s always a good question to begin with. Continue reading

NOW THEY’RE THERE

No matter how you look at the results from today’s Weltklasse Diamond League meet in Zurich — to me it seemed a little down after the highs of Rio — this much is unassailable: the Americans are there, in the hunt, fighting for the top places. Not just in the sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws, but increasingly in the middle and long distance events as well.

They might not get always get there, as with Evan Jager in the 5000 (3rd in 13:16). But he wasn’t afraid to go with the pacer, open a big margin, and at least force Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhiwet (and fellow Yank Paul Chelimo) to run him down in the final lap.

And how about Shannon Rowbury in the 1500 (1st, 3:57.78), closing hard and feisty on the inside against Laura Muir (and let’s not forget the Brits in this, either). And Jenny Simpson collapsing to secure a close fourth in 3:58, leaving Olympic champ Faith Kipyegon of Kenya faltering to seventh (4:01) which denied her the Diamond race season title.

Continue reading

BACK TO PACING AS USUAL

Running fast behind pacers is a thoughtless act. You know what’s coming — in fact, it’s been negotiated — and you can either do it or you can’t. But there is no thought required as there is in a pure racing format like the Olympic Games.

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Matthew Centrowitz and Nick Willis celebrate Olympic glory

One of the many highlights of the Rio Games was Matthew Centrowitz’s stirring front-running win in the men’s 1500 meter final. Yet, historic as it was — first American to take that title since 1908– there are some who question the standard of that gold medal run, because the 3:50 winning time was the slowest since the 1932 final.

Notwithstanding the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, such time-based considerations miss the entire point of the endeavor, and help define what’s missing in the staging and presentation of the sport in general. Continue reading

CAN ATHLETICS BE MARKETED TO MATTER ANYMORE?

THE DRIP, DRIP, DRIP OF SCANDAL

WADA Independent Commission Report 2015

WADA Independent Commission Report 2015

So on the same day that WADA unanimously declares Kenya non-compliant with its anti-doping code, thereby threatening the East African running juggernaut with exclusion from this summer’s Rio Olympics (along with Russia, which was also declared non-compliant last November) we also have word that  organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic bid were alleged to have made a “seven-figure payment” to an account controlled by the son of former IAAF President Lamine Diack, who, himself,  was arrested last year by French authorities on corruption and money laundering charges, over allegations he took payments for deferring sanctions against Russian drugs cheaters.  And the beat just goes on and on and on.

Sebastion Coe Rebuilding Trust

IAAF President Sebastian Coe (Getty Images)

I don’t know, maybe Sebastian Coe is the IAAF’s last best chance.  But these latest two bombshells make you wonder if anyone involved in this filthy sport can truly be the cleansing agent needed to disinfect the body politic?

And perhaps that reflects how bad the situation really is. Looking at the entirety of the WADA Independent Commission report, along with Commission chair Dick Pound’s subsequent public support for Seb Coe as new IAAF president, the only judgement one can make is that there seems to be little appetite for the kind of wholesale reconstruction that these reports suggest is necessary.  Continue reading