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Dr. J. on Running

Club Membership

Running Requires Structure

Published December 13, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

The summer of 1996 witnessed a transcontinental track rivalry between the Syracuse Chargers Track Club, the Houston Area Road Runners Association in Texas, and the San Francisco Dolphins Running Club in California. Each of the three groups staged a women's 100x1-mile relay to break the Guinness Book of World Records' mark.

Controversy quickly followed. The Guinness Book of World Record listed the mark as the fastest mass relay by one hundred women belonging to the same club. The controversy focused on the meaning of club membership. Each group petitioned Guinness and challenged the other group's claim to the record. The London, England, corporation was far from amused by our American antics for good reason.

European track and field competition revolves around club membership. The club is the center of all training, competition, and social life - if runners have one. Even scholastic and collegiate athletes compete as members of local clubs. In turn, athletic clubs are active members of national federations, which, in turn, are active in the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

The picture in America is quite different. A young runner's first loyalty is likely to be to a high school team, followed by a dead-end, over-regulated, four-year college career. Upon graduation, with the prospects of a productive decade of competition, some pledge allegiance to shoe companies, others join local clubs and many run on their own. American running clubs are generally tax-exempt organizations which cater to the perceived needs of their members, but are certainly not equipped to bring back America's golden years of running.

Adding to the murkiness of the situation, American running clubs belong to either, both or neither of two national organizations - the Indianapolis-based USA Track and Field, and the Alexandria, Va., based Road Runners Club of America. This duality dilutes further efforts to promote running and restore America's competitive world pre-eminence.

Recent successes by American runners have resulted primarily from individual efforts. Notable exceptions include the Santa Monica Track Club that has produced numerous world records in the sprints, supporting a claim to the benefits of club membership.

My proposal to restructure American running centers on local club membership. Club-organized road races and track meets will require all participants to belong to a running club, and rigorous rules of athletic competition will be observed when holding competitive events.

A strong running pyramid requires a wide base at the grass-roots level, and rises high at the international elite level. Therefore, all clubs and club members will join the national governing body for our sport, and races will welcome only those members in good standing.

Over the years, many prestigious races tried and abandoned the requirement for USATF membership. New York City and Boston Marathons are two prime examples. I prefer to see all sanctioned races and track meets in the USA require USATF membership, with a declared club affiliation. The rest can remain fun and fitness charity jogs.

Imagine 10 million runners joining local clubs and a national federation. Imagine a sudden annual influx of $100 million at the national level to invest in our sport. Then wake up to the reality that it takes a vision and a plan, not just money, to move running on the right path, whatever that might be.

Back to the summer of 1996, frustrated with our inability to define club membership, the Guinness Book of World Records deleted the women's 100x1-mile mass relay from its list of records.

Kamal Jabbour counted every lap and every second of that fateful relay. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains TrackMeets.com, the world leader in live track webcasting, and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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