US Distance Runners Fall ShortPublished August 27, 2001 in The Post-Standard.
By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
Earlier this month, Edmonton hosted the world championship in track and field. The United States won the team title with 9 gold medals, 5 silver and 5 bronze. Russia finished second with 6-7-6, and Kenya third with 3-3-1.
The US victory resulted from outstanding performances by our sprinters, jumpers and throwers. Men won gold in the 100 meters, 110 meter hurdles, 4x100 and 4x400 relays and the shot put. Women won gold in the 200 meters, 100 meter hurdles, 4x100 meters and pole vault.
Our distance runners failed to score in any event. Paul McMullen finished tenth in the 1,500 meters, Adam Goucher eleventh in the 5,000 meters, Alan Culpepper eighteenth and Deena Drossin eleventh in the 10,000 meters, and a whole slew of favorites did not finish.
The performance of our marathon runners was pathetic. The fastest US man ran slower than the women's marathon winner. Josh Cox's 35-th place in 2:26:52 was 46 seconds slower than Japan's Reiko Tosa, the women's champion. At the team level, the best three performances of the US men added up to 7:25:38, 3 minutes slower than the top three Japanese women. On the women's side, the US marathon team managed to finish ahead of Guatemala's team.
As I celebrated our nation's victory in the world championship, I looked for a bright side to the embarrassing performance of our distance runners. I searched desperately for trends or patterns, before resigning myself to the simple explanation that our runners did not measure up on that occasion.
So, I set out to draw wide-ranging far-reaching conclusions from this finite sample of data. The compelling evidence over the past two decades begs for a reality check. In a sport where the worst players get the most playing time, and where we pride ourselves on ten million participants each year, we seem to have settled for just that: also-rans.
Money has ruined our sport. When distance runners earned a living as physicians and engineers, their performances shattered records. When the sport switched to the model of professional athletes, their performances fell short of our expectations.
Charity races have ruined our sport. The largest US road races aim to raise money for one cause or another, not promote athletic competition or develop Olympians. Race organizers brag that "everybody who runs this 5K race is a winner". In fact, the majority of these "winners" do not belong to the national federation, do not attend elite competition, and cannot identify a single elite runner.
The time has come to take money out of running, to withhold sanction for charity races, to require club membership for all competitors in sanctioned races, and to populate the grassroots with runners not joggers, competitors not spectators, achievers not just "winners."
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created TrackMeets.com, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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