Saturday, January 8, 2011

Thinking About a Running Revival

While out on a run the other day I got to thinking about how distance running was so much more popular in America back when I was growing up than it is today. I grew up watching guys like Tom O'Hara, Jim Grelle,Gerry Lindgren,Jim Beatty, and 0f course,Steve Prefontaine. Track meets were the highlight of weekend sports shows such as the Wide World of Sports. The runners I mentioned,as well as others, inspired me and thousands of others to become involved in distance running. I look around today and see how much things have changed in regards to running. Reports indicate that overall,across the nation,distance running is way down on the list as a choice for kids who get into sports these days. If you don't get ESPN then you will probably never see a track meet or major marathon,forget about having the opportunity to see what I believe is the best sporting event,the World Cross Country Championships. I realize that there are certain parts of the country that thankfully still cover the local running scene but the national media has in recent decades developed an unhealthy preoccupation with almost every sport but distance running. Professional football,baseball,hockey,golf and basketball as well as collegiate football and basketball dominate all facets of media coverage. Oh,I forgot to mention NASCAR,what's with the heavy media push on this "sport" over the last 10 years? This formerly regional activity has been promoted incessantly.
So why has the sport we love been relegated to the back pages of most newspapers and virtually disappeared from television? I believe there are a few reasons,some I know and some I may not. First and foremost I think it all boils down to money. There is big money to be made off the major pro sports from attendance,television coverage and related merchandising.As they say,money talks. In the media,it's all about the money. Track and distance running are only going to generate so much revenue and it pales in comparison to the professional and major college sports.
Probably the second reason why distance running gets so little attention is that we have been lacking a charismatic America runner who can capture the attention of this country and media. Steve Prefontaine did, and that was not just because he was an electrifying runner,he also promoted the sport and fought for runners to be compensated for devoting their lives to the sport. Many forget that the rules and regulations on amateur athletes back then were beyond what you would call unreasonable. Also,recall what happened after Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in '72? It set off a huge running boon in that decade,the benefits of which are still being seen today. I would say that the last two American distance runners who have generated a lot of press would be Mary (Decker) Slaney and Alberto Salazar.It was interesting to watch how the media covered Alberto when he lost his first big marathon in Rotterdam.I am mentioning this because it appears that most of today's sport's media doesn't even understand the nature of running and how it relates to competition. I believe he came in 4th or 5th at Rotterdam against the best runners in the world yet the press acted as if he had failed miserably. They had no clue as to the fact that this happens in distance running to the best of runners.You are going to lose eventually.Much later,after years of injury,Alberto came back and won the 52 mile Comrades Marathon in record time and it barely got any coverage. This event by the way, held in South Africa, is one of the premier sporting events in the world. I personally believe it was the sports performance of the year by a U.S. athlete. Still,it was ignored on most year end, sports highlights of the year.
The logical question is,will we ever see a return to the days when running got the coverage it deserved? I certainly hope so but I doubt it. We are a different country now then we were when I was growing up. We're more sedentary, and as mentioned above,we have developed a preoccupation with other sports and interest in those sports is growing not diminishing. However,that does not mean that we simply give up. As we continue to run and encourage others to do so, we can attend and support the local road races as well as the high-school cross country and track events.I am sure there is more that we can do but this is a start in supporting the purest and greatest of all sports.

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