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

DEFLATED IN COURT?

DeflateGateThough the Symmonds Matter has managed to leak into the public sphere, let there be no doubt as to which sport’s legal case the population is riveted.  Deflate-Gate hit federal court today in Manhattan where the long unraveling of each side’s case began before Judge Richard M. Berman.

The judge had requested that the NFL and NFL Player’s Association meet prior to today’s hearing to discuss or even come to a settlement.  That didn’t happen. So Judge Berman conducted an open court hearing followed by a closed-door session in an attempt to get the two sides closer to doing for themselves what he will eventually do for them if they can’t work it out for themselves. Continue reading

DEFLATE-GATE & RUNNING

DeflateGateDeflate-Gate is another example of how out-of-step running is in today’s sporting world. In a classic example of “all publicity is good publicity”, the NFL is going to see the highest rated annual TV show now go through the retractable roof next Sunday in Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium for Super Bowl XLIX, all because some footballs had two psi too little air in their bladder last weekend at the AFC Championship game in Foxborough, Mass.  Or maybe running is just too pure for what the world has become.

You see, foot racing is really simple, point A to point B, first one in wins. No style points, no arbitrary ref calls (except for that indoor 3000 last year at the USATF Championship), and pretty much conscientious out-of-competition drug testing.  If you lose, it’s relatively easy to accept, because it’s all on you. It’s not because the coach didn’t put you in, or the guy didn’t throw or kick you the ball.  It’s start to finish, plain and simple. See you there. Obviously, there is cheating, but as we’ve seen with the recent Russian and Kenyan situations, the fight against it is ongoing.

Yet with its DeFlate-Gate kerfuffle the NFL has no one to blame (or congratulate, depending on your level of cynicism) but itself. It wanted it both ways, to seem to have a level playing field, while allowing the foxes to run the hen houses. So Instead of every team playing with the same footballs, like every baseball team plays with the same baseballs — a no-brainer in terms of an even playing field — the NFL caved in to the Dynamic Duo, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. 

In 2006 Brady and Manning lobbied for visiting teams to be allowed to bring 12 broken-in balls of their own to every away game, because God knows it wasn’t enough to strip defenses from playing, you know, defense – for heaven sakes, don’t breath hard on the wide receivers — no, with all those passing records making billionaires out of millionaires and millionaires out of everyone else, and the NFL rising above baseball to become America’s new pastime, a little wink, wink, nod, nod at how the game is played isn’t going to be noticed, is it?  Yeah, and all those home runs crushed by pharmaceuticaly enhanced head-swellers, where was the harm in that?  Continue reading

MARATHON EASY TARGET FOR HURRICANE IRE

TIPPING POINT

What had always been a unifying force in America’s melting pot city, the one thing that drew every New Yorker and visitor together, has now been blown apart by Hurricane Sandy.  So count the ING New York City Marathon as another victim of last Monday’s vicious storm, except this is a constituent that even FEMA can’t help put back together.

Last night’s decision to cancel the 42nd NYC Marathon by city officials and race organizers has left behind a nasty split.  A city already in tatters and tears is that much more divided than the day before.  Opposing sides in the marathon cancellation debate stare in shocked disbelief at the insensitivity of the other side, leading to arguments and recriminations posted on chat rooms, e-mails and text boxes world-wide.

From “it was the only thing to do”, to “what a wasted opportunity to rally the city”, the reaction has come as swiftly as the miles up First Avenue on race day, but as opposite as one curbside to the other. Needless to say, the overwhelming, though not 100%, view from the marathoner’s side is that the decision to call off the race was wrong-headed.

“I met a girl who flew 20 hours from Australia,” texted my friend Rich Jayne from the Haile Gebrselassie Marathon expo booth at Javitz Center which continued unabated today till 5 p.m.  “There was another guy with only a year to live and this was to be his last marathon.  When the announcement was made we had three foreign runners in our booth.  NYC is not making friends.”

While runners from the top professionals to the 40,000th placer are disappointed and upset for time and money spent and paydays lost, NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg hinted at a graver concern at last night’s press conference in Central Park.

“We became concerned that runners would not receive the welcome they were used to,” she said, adding, “it’s been tough on the volunteers and staff, too, anyone associated with the marathon.”

The city’s mood had turned toxic.

“I heard organized violence was being planned,” wrote a friend in the city, “and runner’s safety was the main concern.”  Continue reading