VIN LANANNA ELECTED USATF PREZ. DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

Today, in Orlando, Florida Coach Vin Lananna was elected president of USATF, the governing body of athletics in the USA, when the other candidate for the office, three-time Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee of East St. Louis, Illinois, withdrew her candidacy.  Both were among the finest candidates for the office the organization has ever had.  Both had risen to the top in their respective fields, she in athletics, he in coaching. Both are honorable people, and both have a deep and abiding love for the sport. Yet, even as the USATF family met in Orlando for its annual meeting to vote on a new leader, the question should at least be asked, is this election simply a myopic whistling past the graveyard given all the deeply cynical drug and corruption charges coming out of so many other brother and sister federations in sport worldwide?

The question of existential relevance is hardly inappropriate. Today, former Chicago Tribune writer Phil Hersh suggested a similar notion: Rot at the Core Threatens Future of Olympics.  And with the release of yet another damning investigative film by Germany’s ARD TV in conjunction with French newspaper Le Monde, Doping – Top Secret: The Protection Racket that uncovered corruption at the very highest levels of governance of the sport, it seems that for many in positions of authority the corridors of power are only greased avenues for bribery and extortion schemes. How can simply replacing the head person at USATF or even in IAAF home office really matter anymore?

There are 200+ federations that make up the IAAF. These are political fiefdoms that are run by fiat, and exist with all but no oversight, nationally or internationally.  If Washington, Jefferson, or Adams were around and involved in this sport, one might assume a Declaration of some sort might well be in preparation.  And it isn’t even that people believe in the system.  Instead they have absorbed it and learned to use it to their best interests.  I have no doubt that Jackie and Vin have the best interest of the sport as their animating mission. But that makes them the outlier in this international cabal, if inquiry and evidence be any judge. Continue reading

WESLEY KORIR – BEYOND RUNNING

Wesley Korir’s Winning Smile

The 116th Boston Marathon stands as one the warmest in the event’s illustrious history.  Dire warnings were posted on the BAA website offering entrants the opportunity to by-pass the expected broiler without having to re-qualify for 2013 (Boston is the only major marathon that requires entrants to qualify by age-graded time standards).

With temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the road surface, two-time L.A. Marathon champion and 2011 Chicago runner up Wesley Korir bided his time, watching as fellow countryman Matthew Kisorio (recently suspended for a steroid doping violation) Levy Matebo and defending champion Geoffrey Mutai opened up a sizable lead through the mid-section miles of the historic route.  Mutai was running in his first hot weather marathon, and discovering it was not his cup of tea.   At 18 miles he pulled off by the side of the road, felled by the sweltering conditions.  At 21 miles atop Heartbreak Hill Matebo broke free of Kisorio. Wesley Korir was in sixth place more than a minute behind.

“I had to be careful,” Wesley told me the following day at the annual day-after press conference at the Copley Plaza Hotel, “because with crowds I really get motivated. So I had to stay in the moment and be smart.  I kept telling myself, “be smart.  Be smart.”

Gradually, like a long-line fisherman, Korir reeled in the fading leaders, finally passing Matebo on Beacon Street before entering Kenmore Square with one mile to go.

“When I passed him I knew he was struggling,” Wesley recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got this’. Then all of a sudden I began cramping up really bad, and I had to slow down, because I knew if I continued pushing I wouldn’t finish the race.”

Nobody was immune to the conditions that April day.  But this is where Wesley Korir began to separate himself from the everyday champions of the sport.  In his moment of crisis, with victory at history’s oldest marathon at stake, he stopped thinking like an athlete.

“As I was running, I knew my family was first, and my running was second. I didn’t want to do anything crazy to hurt myself, because I know my family depends on me. I know they love me, and want to see me back home safe.”

Another kilometer down the course as the route dipped below Mass Ave at the Tommy Leonard Bridge adjacent to the old Eliot Lounge, Wesley was able to get away from Matebo. But…

“I won the race not because of my ability to run, but because of my ability to process things. I thank God for bringing me to America to go to college.  I won because of my intelligence rather than my physical abilities.  I had to be conservative.  I had to take care of my body. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital, and maybe ruin my life forever.  But things like this you only get with education.  You don’t only think of winning. You think of the big picture of your life.”

It is this quality of perspective, of prioritizing, of seeing beyond the moment to the larger picture that has led Wesley Korir into the hearts of marathon fans world-wide, and made him an easy rooting favorite – along with American Dathan Ritzenhein – for Sunday’s marathon in Chicago.

“I’m still growing as a marathoner,” Wesley says.  “I couldn’t believe I won the Boston Marathon.  It’s nice to win L.A., but to win the Boston Marathon is like winning the Olympics and the World Championships all of them together.”

Believing the Boston Win

Squatting on his haunches having just crossed the finish line on Boylston Street, Korir’s expression was one of wonder and disbelief.

“I asked the volunteer ten times to pinch me.  Did I really just win the Boston Marathon?”

Yes, Wesley, you did, following in the footsteps of many fellow Kenyans. But maybe none more so than the original Kenyan champion at Boston, Ibrahim Hussein (1988, 1991-`92).  I say this because you, like Hussein, came into your pro running career as a college graduate, having taken a biology degree at the University of Louisville in 2008.

A generation ago college was the path almost all Kenyan runners took to the U.S.  Men like Ibrahim Hussein, Mike Musyoki, Henry Rono, and Joe Nzau arrived on scholarship.  But as the 1990s dawned, money in the sport opened, then grew.  Slowly, then decidedly, young Kenyan runners and greedy agents began to eschew long-term goals, and instead struck early and often.  Without any standards to hit, or obligations required to earn professional status, Kenyan athletes flooded the American road circuit, hitting as many races as possible, even at the expense of their own best interests.

“I was talking to the Athletics Kenya chairman (Isaiah Kiplagat), who was here (Boston),” explained Wesley.  “I told him, ‘we need to encourage athletes in Kenya to go to school’.  You don’t have a lifetime to run (competitively), but you do have a lifetime to use knowledge. I think most runners who are struggling financially in Kenya, who cannot do something with their life, struggle because they don’t have that knowledge. And that’s when people take advantage of them.”

Sudden fame and instant riches can become their own curse, as evidenced by the tragic death of 2008 Olympic Marathon (and 2X Chicago) champion Sammy Wanjiru last May.

Wanjiru Wins in Chicago 2010

“He was a very good friend of mine,” said Korir.  “The reason I won Boston is because in Chicago when I ran with Sammy he told me, “Wesley, you run like a champion. And I tell you the truth, you will be a champion one day’.  That motivated me to work so hard, and I wanted to win Chicago last year for him. I didn’t (he finished second to Moses Mosop). But when I came to Boston I told coach (Ron Mann, University of Louisville), ‘I have unfinished business’.

“Sammy was a great guy.  But why was he unable to manage his life? Why did these things happen to him?  Because he didn’t get an education.  That’s why other people were leading his life, not him.  And that’s what my education gives me, the understanding to know what comes first.”

Wesley points to Sally Kipyego, nine-time NCAA champion out of Texas Tech who has a nursing degree as well as a silver medal from the 2011 World Championships at 10,000-meters, as his female role-model counterpart.

“Sally and I are perfect examples of what needs to be done in Kenya. First you need to go to school. You can still run after that.  I don’t think all I’ve done in the four years that I have been a professional runner I would have done if I went pro immediately.”

Then Wesley brought general theory back into everyday practice.

“I have a young brother (John Kipkosgei).  He is 13 years old, and very fast.  Last year (2011) he was about to make the Kenyan Junior team, but I told him and my mom, ‘no running until he finishes school’.  He has the talent. There’s no doubt about that. But get an education first. I even told his teachers, ‘no running.  Let him do the exercises, but no competitive running until he finishes school’.”

The Korir’s:  McKayLA, Tara & Wesley

These days Wesley, wife Tarah, and their two-year-old daughter McKayLa (named by combining Tarah’s maiden name with LA, site of Wesley’s first two marathon wins) split their time between homes in Kentucky, where he and wife Tara met, her parent’s home in Kitchener, Ontario, and Kenya.

Wesley is one of nine siblings who hail from Biribiriet, a small village in the Central Highlands of western Kenya where life offers no guarantees.  One of his other brothers died several years ago of a poisonous snake-bite when there was no medical clinic near enough to save him.

Today, Wesley’s Kenyan Kids Foundation supports youngsters in their educational goals, while a new medical clinic in his home village, built with the support of friend Ryan Hall’s STEPS Foundation and set up by the University of Louisville Medical School, has brought something approaching hope, if not a guarantee, to Biribiriet. At the same time it has elevated Korir beyond the valued, but narrow, scope of world-class distance runner, and shown him the road ahead beyond his competitive years.

As he told Phil Hersh: “When you would help the children, you would see their families smile. I told my wife, ”This is what I want to do the rest of my life, to make people smile.’ ”

I have often said that every sport must be fortunate in the people who become their champions.  Sport, after all, is a meritocracy.  But if there is anyone in the 40,000+ field for the Chicago Marathon who would no more with the 2012 title than Wesley Korir, I really don’t know who that might be.

END

P.S.

Like the other great running writers of his era, men like the late Joe Concannon of the Boston Globe and Neil Amdur, former sports editor of the New York Times, Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune is a master of the long-form profile, once a staple in the newspaper business.  With a gemologist’s eye for detail these writers have a way of weaving a tapestry in words that captures something beyond the facts to reveal the essential nature of their subjects.  Hersh The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersch penned an in-depth profile this week on Kenya’s Wesley Korir as a lead-in to Sunday’s 2012 Chicago Marathon.

AWAITING THE MARQUEE MATCHUPS

Mayweather unloads on Ortiz

    I have been a boxing fan even longer than a track/running fan, watching Gillette’s Friday Night Fights with my father in those halcyon days when black and white television had the jittery faraway look of today’s USA 5 KM Championship internet coverage in Providence, Rhode Island.   But even now I find foot racing and boxing to be at least sporting second cousins. Both require rigorous training, and then the shared goal in competition of trying to stop the other guy from doing to you what you are trying to do to him.
Last night, in Las Vegas Floyd Mayweather Jr. remained unbeaten (42-0) with a controversial fourth round sucker-punch KO of Victor Ortiz to claim the portion of the world welterweight title Ortiz carried into the ring.  Today, in Providence Ben True of Maine bested six-time NCAA D2 champion Aaron Braun ex of Adam State and Kenya’s Sam Chelanga two-time D1 NCAA champion ex of Liberty University, while in Philadelphia Matthew Kisorio defended his Philly Half title against fellow Kenyan Sammy Kitwara in a U.S. all-comers record 58:45 (joined by New Zealand’s Kim Smith’s similar 1:07:11 record performance on the women’s side.) In a side-note, former multiple time NCAA champion out of Colorado, but long injured Adam Goucher qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston with his 1:04:53 time (needed sub-1:05).

Of course, the overt violence of boxing and mano-a-mano nature of the game separates it from the more subtle and less obvious violence of running where the pain and savagery is meted out using pace as the hammer (and head-butting and sneak punches aren’t an issue).  Another difference is that no runner on the planet – no, make that ALL runners together on the planet – don’t earn what Mayweather pulled down for the 11:59 of fighting last night, $25 million, a sum likely to rise when pay-per-view receipts are counted.  For reference, the Samsung Diamond League total payout for the 2011 track and field season is $8 million spread over 32 event champions.  Dartmouth grad Ben True earned the princely sum of $5000 for his USA 5 KM Championship.  Continue reading

TOO LATE

“And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it,”  –  Carol King, 1971

Really, does it make any difference anymore?  After our nearly 30 years in the wilderness under Ollan Cassell ( he was Executive Director of the AAU 1970–1980, then Executive Director of USA Track and Field 1980–1997), the following ten years of triage under Craig Masback, and the recently completed two-year sideshow of Doug Logan, unless we discover that Dick Ebersol announced his resignation as head of NBC on May 19th in order to take the post as USATF CEO, would anyone outside Indianapolis even lift an ear bud for news of who’s next on the USATF Gong Show stage?

Honest, this sport is so far outside the mainstream of the American sporting consciousness, and USATF has its own head so far twisted up its bureaucratic ass, that to think anyone, even Mr. Ebersol, would be anything but insignificant as leader would be to believe Harold Camping’s five-month margin of error excuse for his May 21st rapture miscall.                   Continue reading