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

RUNNING HISTORY LESSONS WITH RAMON

We had a guy come over to the house yesterday to install a backup device on our computer by the name of Ramon, a fast fingered tech guy.

As he worked we got to talking about all the audio tapes on the desk from my old Runners Digest radio show in Boston and I went and showed him an interview I did with Bobbi Gibb in 1980 explaining how she was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966 but how she had to sneak into the race cause women weren’t allowed to run back then and how all these years later a statue is going to be erected in her honor at the start line next April and, yea, she is actually the sculptor of her own younger likeness.

Old tapes waiting to be digitized from Runners Digest days

And then I told the story about how the following year another woman named Kathrine Switzer got entered by her coach from Syracuse University, not out of any devious plan, just that he had a bunch of people to enter and used their initials rather than first names. So the BAA didn’t know she was a woman when the entries arrived, so they just sent back the bib numbers for everybody when if they knew she was a woman they wouldn’t have sent one to her.

But then when they saw a real live woman actually running in their race with a bib number on her chest, well this one official had a cow and came charging out to try to grab the number from her. but he found out real quick that Kathrine’s boyfriend was a hammer-thrower who blocked this older Scotsman into the bushes and the whole thing was photographed by the media and instantly went viral worldwide and how that became a real marker in the early stages of the women’s movement.

And Ramon was a bit taken aback by it all, being as he was still in his late 20s or so, and hadn’t ever heard the whole saga.  

But then he wanted to know “is that the one that cheated?”

“Kathrine? Oh, God, no. That was Rosie Ruiz.”

And off I went telling him how Rosie had died recently, and how sad her whole story was and how she really didn’t mean to cheat to win back in 1980, she just wanted to cheat for a decent time, but jumped in too soon and then wouldn’t admit it after they gave her the olive wreath and medal, you know, a screwup, like Mulvaney.

Ramon consolidated more files and said, “I think I read something about that.”

“Which one?” I asked  “Mulvaney or Rosie?”

Before he could answer I told him “you know the women’s world record in the marathon was just broken last weekend in Chicago by a Kenyan lady Brigid Kosgei.”

“She beat Usain Bolt’s time, right?”

“No, Bolt ran the 100 and 200 and besides women can’t run with the best men, testosterone and all that.”

Which brought up the subject of the recent IAAF ruling on testosterone levels for Caster Semenya and the other inter-sex women athletes. And you try to explain that phenomenon to a computer technician. Anyway, on it went, one thing touching upon another.

Ramon’s head was beginning to spin by this time like the internal mechanism of that USB drive he was all but finished installing. 

Our two cats came over to check him out and  musta thought he was a good human cause they sidled right up. Ramon said he had seven cats of his own. I guess they could tell.

Ramon fixed us up real good on the computer, reset some folders, cleaned up the home screen. He was the kind of guy that knew his trade very well even knew some snippets of running here and there, but just enough to be completely confused. Like me with computers.

And so it goes.

Bobbi’s statue in her studio

END

BARSHIM FINALLY FILLS THE HOUSE

Flag-waving fans come to cheer the hometown hero

The IAAF World Championships finally soared last night, looking and feeling more like a world championships of old. It took till day eight of ten, but with a world record push in the women’s 400 hurdles, an epic drive in the men’s 3000 meter steeplechase, and an arcing, come from behind win by the home country hero in the men’s high jump, all performed before a rollicking flag-waving crowd, this Doha version of the IAAF World Athletics Championships truly became a member of the World Champs family of venues.

Throughout the first week, though, a major story line had been the  embarrassingly empty Khalifa Stadium.  Leading up, the IAAF had been defensive about the lack of ticket sales -reportedly only 50,000 were sold for the full  10 days – as critics pointed to past IAAF President Lamine Diack as having sold the meet to Qatar for personal rather than sporting purposes.

But it will be interesting to see if the wonderful atmosphere of day 8 can be reproduced on the last two days of competition. Because it wasn’t hard to figure why Day 8 stood out. Undoubtedly, it was the result of one man, Qatar’s own Mutaz Essa Barshim, the high jump superstar and 2017 world champion.

The Man – Mutaz Essa Barshim

In the previous seven days, the only time the crowds really came in numbers was when Kenyan and Ethiopian runners were performing in the distance events. And even then, officials had to paper the stadium (free tickets) to attract them.

As athletics attempts to get beyond the corruption and PED issues that have haunted the sport for so long and address the multiple challenges ahead, one thing to consider is that we don’t have track and field fans, we have track and/or field event fans. Only the most die-hard amongst us enjoy the entire panoply of events.

We saw this most strikingly just a few years ago in Sacramento at the USATF nationals where the penultimate event of the meet was the men’s 100-meter final followed by the 5000 meters. The second the 100 was finished, 98% of the stadium got up and left, leaving only the 5000-meter fans to muster along the rail for the last event of the evening.

So what we had were sprint fans and distance fans commingling. But as if in a centrifuge, they were quickly separated once the sprint fans had their measure and left.

Appealing to the next generation

When US national championships and the World Championships, two of the greatest athletics meetings ever, can’t draw casual fans, that’s a sign of a major problem.

The sport is littered with great athletes. Hopefully, the marketing folks at IAAF will come up with some novel solutions and not have to wait for another Barshim in Qatar or Usain Bolt everywhere else to come along to hold the game together between controversies.

END

WOMEN RACING WOMEN. NOT SO FAST

It all used to be so simple.  Then again, it all used to be pretty screwed up, too.  But in today’s charged political climate, where folks can be as sensitive as a hemorrhoidal pole-sitter, the politics of gender and self-identification remain fraught with — what did I just read today, that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will raise their baby as “gender-fluid”? Gender-fluid?  Let’s see how that affects the Olympic schedule in 2044.

And so after a weeks worth of testimony at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, the case against the IAAF for requiring reduced testosterone levels in so-called hyperandrogenic athletes – or women runners with “differences of sexual development” (DSD) – now awaits a decision by a three-person panel on or before March 26th. 

Caster Semenya in Doha 2016
(Andrew McClanahan/PhotoRun)

The case against the proposed IAAF ruling, brought by double Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa, is not as simple as restricting performance-enhancing drug use. In fact, in what seems a massive irony, the IAAF is looking to sanction performancerestricting drug use to reduce the testosterone levels of certain female athletes, which begs the question, why not do the same for performance-enhancing drug use, if the point is to guarantee a level playing field? And how level is level? And how fluid is fluid? And have we stepped upon that old slippery slope?

Let’s begin here. The whole purpose of a competition is to discover through the intricate calculus of talent, training, and tactics how one athlete gets to the finish line ahead of all others. It is the ineffable nature of that calculus that makes the sport intriguing. Take away the unknowable, replace it with certainty, and you’ve essentially eliminated the game.

Why don’t women just compete against men?  Because we would know the result before the start.

I went grocery shopping with the wife yesterday and she was lamenting how heavy the bags were as she handed them to me from the cart to put in the trunk.

“You’re older than I am and I work out with weights in the gym,” she said  “But you only have to use one hand to lift the bags while I have to use two. It’s not fair.”

There it is. I have testosterone coursing through my system at a level she doesn’t, and testosterone is the separating agent that distinguishes a man’s strength and power advantage over a woman’s – after boys and girls compete on an equal basis before the onset of puberty. The IAAF suggests the way to make things right in the middle distance races from 400m to 1500m is to reduce that hormonal advantage certain women have over others. Semenya and her advocates suggest otherwise. Continue reading

HEY, USAIN

Usain’s team Stromsgodset lost 1-0 

In this year, with no Olympics or World Championships on the calendar, athletics is reshuffling its deck seeking the new face-of-the-sport to replace Usain Bolt who retired last year as the world record holder in both the 100 and 200 meters.

Retirement finds the Jamaican superstar sprinter continuing his long sought dream to play pro futbol, stating in 2016 that his dream was to play for Manchester United. Last month the 31 year-old Jamaican played 20 minutes for Norwegian team Stromsgodset in a friendly against Norway U19s.

But could there be something more that Usain Bolt could do for his old sport of athletics with his outsized persona and abundant free time after his futbol itch has even scratched? Continue reading

TIME TO GET UP!

People wonder where the next Steve Prefontaine is, that runner who can both race with charismatic elan while simultaneously challenging the status quo to the point where he/she draws a whole new category of fans into the game.

Pre died 42 years ago on Memorial Day weekend, and time has worked its magic, as it always does. Yes, Pre was special, but even Usain Bolt – who’s been exponentially more successful than Steve ever was – hasn’t been able to lift the sport to a realm it never reached in any previous epoch. Guess what?  Ain’t gonna happen. Know why?  Cause running isn’t that kind of sport. Wasn’t then. Isn’t now.

Once you get beyond the mile, running doesn’t pay off close scrutiny unless you are a hard-core practitioner yourself.  Distance running is a nuanced sport that builds dramatic tension, but only when the stakes are high. But since the stakes are almost never high – maybe twice  every four years, or at the Breaking2 Project  – there is no compelling drama in the intervening period unless you’re a die-hard.

The sports that are dramatic are episodic, sh*t happens every thirty seconds, like a pitch, a play, or a shot.  And those mini-dramas eventually lead to a denouement and satisfying dramatic conclusion, i.e. somebody wins the championship, like either the Penguins or Predators in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals ( Pittsburgh up 2-0), or tonight’s opening of the NBA Finals, Cavs v. Warriors.

Running comes to one conclusion each in a hundred different places after many minutes (even hours) of soporific sameness. That was a hard enough sell when the only other sports were horse racing and wife brow-beating, you know, when leisure time was a fantasy.  Today, the competition is stiffer than ever, and running’s presentation is sealed in amber.

*

I was at a Target store yesterday, and a crew from the local NBC affiliate came up to me and the wife and said they were doing a story on whether schools should start later than they do. The premise being cause kids are not getting enough sleep they can’t retain what they’re being taught.

I looked it up.  The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) shows that average start time for the 39,700 public  middle and high schools in America is 8:03 a.m.  In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged middle and high schools to modify start times to enable students to get adequate sleep by starting no sooner than 8:30 a.m.

How about go to bed earlier? There, now you got enough sleep.  Problem solved.

When did parents give up being in charge of their kids? I respected my parents, was afraid of them, too, with good reason, teachers, yeah, them too.  Why? There were consequences to non-compliance. That had a tendency to grab your attention. And what is government anyway but forced compliance? Do whatever you want until you get on the wrong side of the law.  Then see how it works out for you.

For a very short time I used to be a schoolteacher. Back then it was the adults (parents and teachers) in league against the kids, because we knew better. Screw up in school and you’d be in even more trouble at home. Today, it seems like the parents and kids occupy a united front against the educators, because evidently nobody knows better.

We had to go to bed at 8 o’clock when we were kids. Didn’t want to. Wanted to stay up and watch The Untouchables and Sea Hunt. But we went to bed against our will because parents looked at us. Who’s callin’ the shots here?  What lessons are really being taught?

But for some reason when every American adult of certain learning has the stunted attention span of the President of the United States, good effin’ luck with delayed gratification, discomfort, and doing stuff you don’t want to do – like going through with a deal you made with the rest of the world.

That’s why running doesn’t resonate, and never will. It’s the sporting equivalent of going to bed early to be ready for training tomorrow morning.  Think Pre ever told Bill Bowerman to move practice back so he could sleep in after staying up late?

END

ON MAKING ASSUMPTIONS, WHO’S CLEAN, WHO’S NOT

Watching Bill Burr‘s hysterical bit on the Conan O’Brien show four years ago when he dissected Oprah‘s big reveal interview with Lance Armstrong – during which the disgraced Tour de France cyclist finally copped to the drug use that everyone had suspected for years – it dawned on me, if Lance was always assumed to be guilty though he passed every drug test, why hasn’t the public made the same assumption about the biggest names in athletics?  Or maybe they have.

I’m not suggesting anything,  just wondering out loud how the public mind works.  (Really,  this is just an excuse to post  Bill Burr’s take on Oprah and Lance, which is funny and insightful at the same time, no easy task.)

So let’s look at the situation with athletics, especially in light of German ARD TV‘s recent investigation alleging the IOC covered up positive Jamaican test results from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where the sprint juggernaut won eleven medals.

First, both cycling and athletics have been awash in performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) for years, to the gills.  And while people all around them get popped, the top guy who produces historic performances continues to sail along testing clean while whooping all the dirty boys.

That was the glory for Lance, right, how the one clean guy who had overcome cancer was able to beat all the drugged up guys. Isn’t that Usain Bolt, minus the cancer?  Or is the difference in public outlook simply a matter of personality? Continue reading