Thursday, September 11, 2014

Will there be a 10,000-metre run at the 2020 Olympics?

The Memorial Van Damme meet in Brussels just took place without a 10,000 for the second straight year. This means that the only world-class men's 10,000 of the year took place in Eugene at the Pre Classic. What that also means is that the men's and women's 10,000 are becoming more and more similar, something that's run either at a championship or as a way of getting the standard to run at a major championship. Races like Ostrava, Hengelo and Brussels, which held races that were aimed at performance for the very best (meet records of 26:20, 26:22 and 26:17, respectively) no longer have the 10,000 presumably because they're too long and don't fit with other events at the meet, meaning that the Pre Classic is maybe the only race left that is neither a championship nor a race set up to hit the standard.

If the World Cross Country Championships could go from a hotly-contested annual event to a biennial afterthought, the 10,000 could easily be removed from the list of championship events if track tries, as it did with this year's relay championships, to become more fan-friendly. Clearly, there are many aspects of track and field that no longer appeal to audiences outside of a niche in some part of the world, such as the 30,000 in Japan, domestic cross country in the United Kingdom and the javelin in Finland. A compact, faster track meet may be the only chance track has to stay relevant, not because long-distance running isn't popular, but because it's no longer appropriate for a track meet.

Although the 10,000 is often portrayed, even by supporters, as a dreary jogfest, t he event is by no means short on drama. If anything, it's the stage on which the greatest distance runners on the world must perform in order to earn their title, with the 5,000 often serving as an after-thought at major championships, even though it's more common overall. The event gave us, among others, Farah, Bekele, Tergat, Gebrselassie, Viren, Mills, Dibaba, Flanagan, Radcliffe, Tulu. It has given us breathtaking finishes won by the smallest of margins, improbable wins by people like Mills, crushing defeats (Radcliffe) and heartbreak (Tergat, later Gebrselassie,). For at least twenty years, the world's greatest distance runner has earned the title by winning the 10,00 (Gebrselassie, then Bekele, then Farah).

Based on the way the sport and the event are going, in five or ten years, the 10,000 will move to the roads and become the 10k, with people remembering a generation from now that once upon a time, there used to be a 10k on the track, not unlike the way the now-defunct one-hour run is recalled. There's nothing wrong with the 10k moving to the road, but even on the road, there's the unspoken reality that the most moneyed part of the sport exists as charity. Big road races attract tens of thousands of participants, their money and sponsors, but slowly, people are finding out that if most ordinary runners couldn't tell Kenenisa Bekele from Bekele Debele or Haile Gebrselassie from Haile Selassie, there's no need to pay appearance fees.

The current structure is kept in place by race directors such as Carey Pinkowski who love the sport and love assembling competitive, world-class fields, but races like the Colour Run and the Spartan Race, as well as their various clones, are finding that you can charge much more than a standard race for delivering an experience instead of a race in the conventional sense. If these races spread, which they will considering the fact that their appeal is larger than a standard race, they are likely to leave the roads wanting a competitive, world-class 10k as much as the track, which is not at all.

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