Tag: Wall Street Journal

POP GOES THE BOOM!

1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.
1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.

The running boom is over, and you can blame the millennials.  So says an article in the Wall Street Journal quoting statistics from, among others, Running USA showing a significant slide in running event participation from the peak of 19 million in 2013 to 17 million in 2015. 

With running being one of the few recession-proof industries during the height of the 2008 Great Recession, a headline like this and its supporting statistics might come as a shock to some.  But it was only a matter of time before this bubble burst, too.

 The oldest of the baby boomers are now 70 and beginning the long generational bleed out. Gen Y is still involved, but the Miilenials are off into something else, reflecting the natural rebellion one generation mounts against their elders – “this isn’t music!” But in this case it’s also a consequence of teaching an entire generation not to compete, drilling into their skulls the idea that every one of them is special and a winner, giving them all medals for showing up, and leading them to believe that 60% of them deserve an A for “just being you!” before shoving them out into a decidedly Darwinian world. Oops, I guess we didn’t prepare them very well. 

Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny

What’s particularly amazing about this is America was built on competition. From the hand-over-fist pioneer spirit that drove Manifest Destiny westward (not saying it was a good or moral thing, just noting a hard-charging, can-do national spirit), to the high-risk, big-reward entrepreneurial spirit that created the greatest economic engine in history, America thrived on competition. 

I remember being at a Super Bowl party one year, and explaining to a German friend how USA Today would rank the commercials in tomorrow’s paper, not just not write about the game. Her reply was a tersely Teutonic, “everything with you Americans is competition.” And I had to agree. “That’s how we know we’re American.  Maybe not totally self-aware, but goin’ after it with refreshing vigor.”

But sometime in the 1990s we began leveling not just the playing field, but the results’ page. Now, instead of everyone getting the same opportunity at the start and an outcome determined by individual achievement, we began engineering the same outcome for all.  Nike’s famous slogan “Just Do It” inferred striving, but soon simply doing became the functional equivalent of doing well. 

Everyone is a winnerThese days, everything has to be social and protected and non-competitive until the inevitable softening begins to show.  But rather than do something about it, we began to salute what we had with plus-size models and wider coffins. Finally, competition is viewed as a destructive force.  Only then do we begin to see how a backlash can form, leading to the rise of a very unconventional candidate who trumpets a return to a greatness now gone. 

But these are the sweeps of history at play, the larger changes that only become apparent after they show up as data points. 

For the Baby Boom generation running toward self-fulfillment was in its own way a backlash against the sit-ins and marches they staged during their college days when they thought they could change society at-large. In the wake of their fractured idealism they were shown a new path by Frank Shorter at the ’72 Olympic Marathon in Munich. 

Inspired by Shorter, and informed by new medical studies led by Ken Cooper in Dallas, the Boomers began working on the one thing they had any chance of changing, themselves. But in reducing the fight to an internal one-on-one battle, in their aggregate the generation did in fact help change the world. 

And now the world is changing again as time first begins to march, then trot, then run flat out until it’s away and gone. 

END

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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. (more…)