Tag: Mary Wittenberg

REMEMBERING MIKE & ZANE

Davenport, IA. – I am in the Quad Cities this weekend for the 43rd QC Times Bix 7 Road Race, this year doubling as the USATF 7 Mile Road Championship.  I’ll have a preview later after today’s presser.

But as this sport of life and vigor looks ahead excitedly to the Bix 7 and the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in London next week,  it also remembers once again a difficult anniversary week.

Mike with pal Haile Gebrselassie and grandson Jack

It was ten years ago that we lost the incomparable Mike Long, the former elite athlete coordinator for Elite Racing, founders of the Carlsbad 5000 and Rock ‘n’ Roll Series of marathons and half-marathons. Mike passed in his sleep at age 65 July 18, 2007 at his home in South Mission Beach San Diego.

Then, just two years ago on July 25th the sport was stunned to hear that long-time athlete manager Zane Branson had succumbed to a heart attack while attending some of his athletes in Iten, Kenya.

Both Mike and Zane represented the best this sport had to offer, passionate commitment in the service of others and an abiding love of the game of running. Former New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg (now CEO of Virgin Sports) flew to San Diego for Mike’s memorial service ten years ago, and jokingly encapsulated proof of Mike’s status as the most beloved man in the sport.

“We (NYRR) think we are pretty nice people,” she said, “but we have to pay $50,000 for an athlete Mike would get for free.”

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ABBOTT WORLD MARATHON MAJORS: MAKING AN “IS” OUT OF AN “ARE”

Before America’s Civil War people said ‘the United States of America ARE’, thinking of the country as primarily an aggregate of individual states rather than a single national entity. Only after Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox and the re-knitting of the Confederate States into the union did people begin to say, “the United States of America IS”.

The difference is subtle but instructive. For one might equally argue that the Abbott World Marathon Majors continue to be more an aggregate of independent events rather than a coherent series made up in six parts. They (as opposed to it) have unfortunately found their time together also running concurrent to a tainted era in the sport, as now four of their women’s series titles have fallen to doping disqualifications – that’s two Lilya Shobukhova’s , one Rita Jeptoo, and now one (sample A) Jemima Sumgong doping positives that have marred what was intended to be series celebrating athletic excellence.

Is it any surprise then that the six AWMMs just this year decided to draw down their top prize for Series XI beginning this weekend in London by half from $500,000 to $250,000, while earmarking a new $280,000 to charity? Yes, they have also included smaller payouts to second and third prizes in the series, $50,000 and $25,000, but overall the runner’s purse has been cut 35%.

Hard to argue the move.  You can’t keep publicly awarding prizes that a year later you have to take back because your winners have tested positive for banned performance enhancers. That’s not the message you want to be announcing.  After getting burned so many times it’s not so much a sport right now as much as it is a big mess.  And historically you sweep messes away.

I have already written how the sport might bolster its attack on the doping problem by increasing blood testing of the athletes till their arteries collapse – TESTING: PUTTING THE MONEY WHERE IT NEEDS TO BE – but let’s also look to the WMM competitions themselves. Boston down, London next. (more…)

THE NEED FOR WHITE HATS V. BLACK HATS

Tesfaye Abera wins in Dubai
Tesfaye Abera wins in Dubai over defender Birhanu

Last night’s Standard Charter Dubai Marathon showed in microcosm all the strengths as well as all the weaknesses confronting foot racing as public spectacle. From a purely athletic standpoint it was a terrific show with 23 year-old unknown Tesfaye Abera of Ethiopia coming back in the final 500 meters to sling shot past defending champion Hayle Lemi Berhanu by nine seconds in 2:04:24 to notch a five-minute PR!

But except for a small, but enthusiastic gathering of Ethiopian ex-pats at the finish, the dead flat, three-turned Dubai course layout was as empty as the Revlon makeup counter at the local mosque.

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"Money" Mayweather bling
“Money” Mayweather bling

Say what you will about Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, the recently retired-now unretired boxing champion (and richest sportsman in the world in 2015), the guy could sell the be-jeezus out of his fights. People just hated the guy with a passion for his swaggering, make-it-rain lifestyle, his pimped up, iced-out persona. And boy, did the people want to see him get his ass handed to him. The fact that none of his opponents could knock his block off just made his next fight sell all the more pay-per-view buys. The guy could sell the sh*t out of his fights.

But the fact is, however you chose to see Mayweather – and his numerous trips to court to defend his treatment of women gave validity to the charge he wasn’t putting on that much of a show, he might actually have been a bit of a d*ck after all – a sport needs its Black Hats to gin up interest going up against the good guy White Hats to promote the game. (more…)

WITTENBERG TO LEAVE NYRR

NYRR Pres. & CEO Mary Wittenberg
NYRR PresIdent & CEO Mary Wittenberg

The New York Road Runners announced today (12 May 2015) that its long serving President and CEO Mary Wittenberg will step down next week to take on the job of Global CEO at Virgin Sport, a new enterprise created by British tycoon Richard Branson that will focus on participatory fitness events and programs, particularly running and cycling.  NYRR board chairman George Hirsch further announced that two of Ms. Wittenberg’s top assistants, Michael Capiraso and Peter Ciaccia, would replace her, dividing her duties into separate business and sport positions.

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The announcement came as a surprise to many, as Wittenberg had become the face of running in New York City during her 10-year tenure as CEO and race director of the New York City Marathon.  In fact, some industry insiders jokingly referred to the 50,000 person November race as the New York City Mary-thon, so prominent and vibrant was Ms. Wittenberg throughout race week.

In Mary Virgin has hired one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, a Buffalo-native who first made a name winning the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987.  After graduating from Notre Dame law school Wittenberg spent several years with a firm specializing in international trade deals for U.S. banks. Then in 1998 she joined NYRR as she sought to combine avocation with vocation. Two years later she became NYRR’s first Chief Operating Officer before taking over from Allan Steinfeld as President and CEO in 2005.

With a supportive board, enterprising staff, and the NYRR portfolio in hand, Wittenberg quickly began to build on the legacy established by Fred Lebow and Allan Steinfeld.  During her tenure the organization and its many events (and charities) flourished – though there were rumblings from some local club members who bridled at increased race entry fees and Mary’s focus on building a more national and international profile for the club. Yet the NYRR’s crown jewel, the New York City Marathon, grew by over 60% in Wittenberg’s time, making it the largest marathon in the world.  In all over 400,000 people participate annually in NYRR activities, including tens of thousands of children via the club’s robust programs for kids.

Wittenberg was also a leader in the creation and development of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, the million dollar series formed in 2006 by six of the world’s preeminent international marathons. Only the fumbled cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — after most of the runners had already flown into town — shows up as a glitch.  And that was mostly on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In early 2007 Mary was scheduled to give the keynote address at the annual Running USA conference. During that time she and I exchanged a number of messages about the state of the sport and the direction it was taking. As we wish her well on her move to her new post with Virgin Sport, I thought we might gain from some hard won understanding of the sport she has helped lead through the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

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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). (more…)

MO FARAH TO RUN HALF OF LONDON’S MARATHON: GOOD IDEA?

Mo Farah
Mo Farah

Britain’s double Olympic track champion Mo Farah begins the re-landscaping of his career toward the marathon this weekend when he competes in New Orleans at the Rock `n` Roll Half Marathon.  It will be the second competitive half-marathon of Farah’s career. The 2012 Olympic 5000 & 10,000 champion won the 2011 New York City Half Marathon in his debut in 60:23.

While the half in New Orleans will serve as an intermediate step toward Farah’s full marathon debut in London 2014, he will concentrate his 2013 efforts on the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Moscow this summer. But there will be another, more significant step toward the marathon this April when Mo will start this year’s Virgin London Marathon.  Yes, he will start, but he will not finish.  How do we know?  Because that is the deal that Mo’s people worked out with London, start this year, run till half-way then drop off. Then go the full distance in 2014.

From an athletic and PR standpoint this makes perfect sense.  From Mo’s vantage point getting the chance to take part in the event without actually being a competitor should serve him well, even if to a small degree, in 2014.  And financially it’s a certainly a win fall. According to the U.K’s Daily Mail, Mo Farah will receive an impressive (by running’s standards) £750,000 for his two London starts ($1,160,000US).  That fee, which was not confirmed by first-year race director Hugh Brasher (son of event founder Chris Brasher), would dwarf even the £500,000 it is believed Paula Radcliffe received in her prime a decade ago.

The Daily Mail story also underscores the point  made by Ben Rosario in a recent submission about the need to make such appearance fees public to hype the sport as being truly professional. BEN ROSARIO: WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?

“He’ll be rightfully well rewarded as an Olympic champion,” was all Hugh Brasher would reveal to the Daily Mail.

But while it all works well for Mo and the event to go just half-way in London 2013, how fair is it to the actual race contenders?  And what does it do for the focus of race coverage? (more…)

RESURRECTING A DAMAGED IMAGE

RUNNERS OFFER  ARM AND LEG

      Sandy was one of those freak storms (we hope) formed by separate weather systems merging into a sum-bitch beyond measure of its parts.  As a category 1 Atlantic hurricane came barreling up the eastern seaboard, a fast moving cold front whipped east from the northern plains just as an occluding front to the northeast blocked and turned Hurricane Sandy inland along the New Jersey-New York coastline. Together those three systems combined into the super-cell which left untold destruction in its path.

Well, the response to the storm by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Road Runners President and CEO Mary Wittenberg – “marathon on”, “marathon off”, all within 48 hours of the start – also created its own super-storm of criticism and anger which blew hard against the ING New York City Marathon, leaving the grand institution battered, shaken, and eventually cancelled for 2012.  And now, like those parts of the metro area still digging out of the ruins, the long term effect on the marathon will take time to assess.

A billionaire entrepreneur with an engineer’s mind wired for detail and fact, Mayor Bloomberg surveyed the situation in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and saw ‘back to normal’ as his guiding principle, not a Clinton-esque, ‘I feel your pain’.  NYRR chief Mary Wittenberg faced the crisis with all her Catholic school-girl earnestness, driven by her faith in the transformative power of running, a faith which has guided her own life and her stewardship of the NYRR.  She had witnessed the nurturing power of the marathon in the aftermath of 9/11, and been schooled on how the inaugural five-borough marathon had been born in response to the city’s deep fiscal crisis of 1976.  The marathon as a redemptive force was not just a personal metaphor, it carried societal implications.

Thus, the drive to make the great marathon the healing tool for a stricken city was, to her, a compelling charge for action not retreat.  Unfortunately, that very willfulness which had served her so well in her own marathon career – the willfulness that makes all who run awaken on chilly pre-dawn mornings to train, and then sustains us in the closing miles of the race when the body is wracked with pain and depleted of energy – had become a liability.

She so wanted the marathon to be a suture binding the wounded city that she became deaf to the pleas of New Yorkers still caught in the immediacy of their pain, and were in no mood for a metaphoric expression of overcoming odds when they were experiencing it first-hand for themselves. (more…)