THE FESTIVALIZATION OF SPORT — Respite from the competition of life

“Charming, smiling fellow”

In our center-right, celebrity-saturated society it is all but apostacy to say, as Yale University Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom did in a C-SPAN interview in 2000, “The country was almost destroyed by Ronald Reagan, that charming, smiling fellow.  He assured us we could all emancipate ourselves from our selfishness, which we proceeded to do on a national scale.”

Bloom’s biting assessment arrived on the heels of the dot-com bubble, but a full eight years before the housing bubble burst, a collapse that plummeted the country into the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Today, we are still on the long climb back to full recovery, if such a thing even exists.

In our modest running world, a similar emancipation has taken place.  Over the last generation, running has witnessed its own emancipation from effort, better known as the “Everyone’s a Winner” phase of the second running boom.  Runner’s World’s Mark Remy wrote about it this past January – OK, Time to Retire the Finisher’s Medal, and just yesterday the Wall Street Journal took up the issue – A lack of competitiveness in younger runners is turning some races into parades.

In June 1982, the late president of the New York Road Runners and race director of the New York City Marathon Fred Lebow told me, “You talk of a running boom, but we haven’t seen a boom yet.  This has only been a boom-let.  The one area that is completely behind the times is women running.  Most races see 15-25% women, yet the population is over 50% women.”

As with most things, Lebow was a seer.  Today, mass marathons in the U.S. are generally over 50% women with some tilting over 60%. Even registration for next April’s Boston Marathon, the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, has skewed heavily female.  Much of that is the consequence of last year’s tragic bombings at the Boston finish line, but some of it is Lebow’s prophecy coming true.

Though the 2014 Boston Marathon registration will skew slower and more female than usual with addition of the 4700 entrants from 2013, predominantly women, who were unable to complete the distance due to the finish line bombings, it is still a long way from 1979 when only 520 women entered Boston compared to 7357 men. Continue reading


Declaration of Independence     In a recent keynote address at the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor lamented what she called America’s ‘alarming degree of public ignorance’.

“Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence,” she said, “and it’s right there in the name!”

Where former Justice O’Connor sees a dumbing down of America’s educational standards — the country reached its highest percentage of high school graduates in 1969 at 77% — one can also see a corresponding slowing down in America’s basic drive to compete.  Not at the higher end of business where we remain affixed as World No. 1.  Rather it is at our foundations that we find a softening.

First, no dodge ball (if you can believe that!), then “everyone’s a winner”, not keeping score in some youth soccer leagues, social advancement and grade inflation, and now a sudden reduction in the support of elite foot racing competition from a company that was originally named Elite Racing and still carries the now rather ironic moniker, Competitor Group.

And yet, at least for the time being, the owners of the Rock `n` Roll series of marathons and half marathons is maintaining the elite component at its European-based events.  I suggest this is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness in general, and should be of concern to us all.

And so, just as Justice O’Connor reflects on what can be done about the dumbing-down of America, we wonder what can be done about the slowing down of America, and the role top echelon runners might play in that turnaround.  Continue reading


(Yesterday’s post generated a great deal of interest in the state of the sport given Competitor Group’s decision to end its elite athlete program as currently constituted. One of the responses to my column came from Competitor CEO Scott Dickey. I didn’t want his detailed review of the situation to be lost in the comments section, so I have placed it here as a guest blog.

I want to thank Scott for his respectful and candid remarks, and hope this back-and-forth helps shed light on both CGI’s decision, and brings those concerned about the state of running to a better understanding of what we need to do to improve that state. My response follows.) Continue reading


San Diego's Petco Park

San Diego’s Petco Park

While the Boston Marathon mapped out course success right off the line in 1897 by mirroring the route that the inaugural Olympic Marathon used in 1896 to commemorate the mythological run of Greek messenger Pheidippides in 492 B.C. from Marathon to Athens, it hasn’t always been so easy for races to find their perfect routes.

It took the Los Angeles Marathon a quarter-century to design their “Stadium to Sea”course that perfectly matched the city’s postcard image of sun, surf and Hollywood.  And the New York City Marathon ran four laps around Central Park for its first six years before expanding to its iconic five-borough route in 1976.

While there may be many roads to Rome, generally there is only one route in each city that will capture both its civic booster pride while bowing to the put upon non-runner citizens who must adjust to the road closures and traffic tie-ups on race day.

Yesterday, the original Rock `n` Roll Marathon in San Diego may have found its perfect layout in its 16th running, call it the “Park to Park” course, from its traditional start in Balboa  Park to the new finish line outside the San Diego Padres home, Petco Park downtown. Continue reading