Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Has running hit the wall or is it going strong?

Recently, I have seen a pair of contrasting posts about the state of the sport. Broadcaster Toni Reavis argues that, ironically, even though it is "going faster than ever, the sport of distance racing has hit its own wall". To wit, he points out the dwindling competitive fields at B-level road races in America, which are starting to move towards paying just a single headlining elite athlete to run, the slow death of World Cross, and the fact that many white runners are dropping out of the sport at its highest levels. Lukas Verzbicas' much-publicized move from triathlon to running is an example he notes of an athlete leaving the sport for another one.

Reavis might appear to be complaining about the fact that the dominance by a bunch of nameless Africans is killing the sport, but he's not. In a star-studded comment thread, Reavis writes that he does not want to "eliminate the East Africans. Instead let’s incorporate them into a larger competitive model. The question is, how and what?" While locals who could give interviews and didn't have ephemeral careers would be better for the sport, running is more than capable of doing this with things like the man-versus-woman competition at the Los Angeles Marathon. Anything is better than the current system of big city marathons with a dozen East African runners wearing the exact same clothing.

Peter Vigneron responds to Reavis by saying that the only way in which the sport is in trouble is financially:

But Reavis sees competitive running as a commodity. Or he must, because that is the only metric by which it is not wildly successful. Otherwise, things are humming along nicely: international competitive running has never been more competitive, American competitive distance running has never been more competitive, and more people are running and entering races in the United States than ever before.

I agree that running, in many ways, is doing really well, but the sport is slowly dying. It may well be that the sport is in the midst of a long, drawn-out downsizing from the popularity it enjoyed in the early-to-mid twentieth-century, and that eventually it will stabilize. However, it's clear that the sport could be doing a lot more to market itself because the results would be better: more money would mean more TV coverage, more and better competitions, and an elite circuit in places like Canada, America or the UK that's not necessarily tied to the performances of the absolute best in the world. Consider Japan, where it pays to be a 2:10 marathoner because of the value that talent has on domestic corporate teams.

I doubt there's much interest in this, though, because a great deal of the people who care about running are involved in it. It would be like asking high school and college football players to help save the NFL. Fans who watch the NFL might be inclined, but if everyone who watched the NFL was also a football player themselves, they might not be as fascinated by simply watching someone else play football. Running is not only participatory, but it fulfills a public health function, and the existence or absence of elite, professional distance running is irrelevant.

What is likely is that running will remain a niche sport to be enjoyed by those who competed seriously and those amateurs who have an interest in it. We will watch it on TV when the Olympics happen, and the rest of the time we'll settle for online feeds. Whether this starts to constrict the sport in ways beyond the elimination of 10,000-metre races remains to be seen, but running's participatory base and attractive financial incentives for East Africans will likely see it through the next generation.

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