Friday, September 4, 2009

100m, the Mile, and the Marathon

Could these three races be the key to Running & Track TV programming?

Quick, name 3 athletes in track & field?

OK, Usain Bolt is easy. He just became another rarity in running: someone from this sport on the cover of Sports Illustrated®.

Before Bolt exploded into our living rooms during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the 100m “dash” has always drawn attention beyond track and running circles. The 100m sprint at the Olympics defined who was the “fastest man or woman”. That title alone gave this event the spotlight. That bright light also brought with it the lure of drugs, the performance enhancing types. The watershed event that put the doubt in our minds about a sprinter’s ability to run a new world record was the DQ of Ben Johnson of Canada at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Johnson had crushed USA’s Carl Lewis and won both the Gold and a new world record. This setback has not deterred the public’s fascination on just how fast a man can go.

That’s one event with staying power and name recognition. What else fascinates the public on the track or roads? What distance is still referred as the standard for measuring speed? It is neither the meter nor the yard. It is the mile. Every moving object both motorized on land and air has its speed measured in miles per hour. The mile. It was another standard that measured man. In track it was considered to be the purest distance to measure speed and stamina. The dawn of the modern Olympics in 1896 also brought with it the drive to attempt to run a 4 minute mile. Physicians and physicists believed in the early 1900s that such a feat-------a mile in 4 minutes flat or less------- was impossible. Some even stated that a man could possibly die trying. It became a quest in the post World War II era. Runners actually thought they could do it. One such runner analyzed how to train for the 4 minute mile and began to believe. He may have been studying to be a physician but he sure sounded like he understood the power of visualization that sports psychologists use today to assist pro athletes. That man was Roger Bannister. He achieved the first sub 4 minute mile and opened the door for several hundred milers since that day in May 1954. Since that famous race in Oxford England, the mile has still been a pillar of track and field. It was Jim Ryun followed by Marty Liquori who rose the mile to new heights in the U.S. Their epic battles culminated in the “Dream Mile” in Philadelphia that was nationally broadcast. The first milers out of Africa were led by Kip Keino. At the international level, the mile had become the 1500m yet anyone who excelled in this distance was called a miler and the race was called the “metric mile”. In the U.S., the mile caught new wind in 2000 when a young high school boy from Reston Virginia broke Jim Ryun’s high school mile record and ran an unthinkable 3:53 mile as a high school senior. Alan Webb joined the list of mile heroes. His career is currently in transition and hopefully we will see him get back to his record setting mile performances.

The other distance that has fueled the rise in running participation or led to two “running booms” is the marathon. The marathon’s popularity started to rise soon after the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Frank Shorter of the USA captured an unexpected Gold medal. Until that point, the marathon had been dominated by European runners. The current domination of the marathon by the African continent’s men and women was not even contemplated in the 70s. Shorter’s win seemed to be a tipping point to more interest in distance running. Jim Fixx’s nationwide best seller “The Complete Book of Running” fueled more growth in the late 70s. The 76 Olympic Games added to the interest in the marathon. Shorter followed up his 72 Gold with silver in Montreal in the 76 Games (albeit a controversial race won by Cierpinski of East Germany whose athletes were later found to be part of major doping program). The New York City Marathon led the surge with its transformation by Fred Lebow in 1976 from a 6 loop event in Central Park to a 5 borough city tour. His NY Road Runners Club had the wisdom to lure runners from Europe to “run New York”. The NYC Marathon’s global marketing made the marathon an international event, not just a 26.2 mile race for Americans. Women’s growth in marathoning began with Joan Benoit (Samuelson). Joanie’s win in the 84 Olympic debut of the marathon was a watershed event. No longer could men say that the marathon was dangerous to women’s health. Participation levels in marathons by women jumped each year following the 84 Games. New marathons were born in the 80s. By the late 80s, the number of finishers in marathons in the U.S. had doubled in less than 10 years. Women had joined in the competition of the marathon but still lagged in overall numbers to male marathoners. It was the Fall 1994 marathon debut by Oprah Winfrey that caused another ripple in marathon participation. Now the marathon could be conquered by the average woman who may have been deemed “unathletic”. If Oprah can shed 80 pounds, get in running shape and run a 4:29 marathon, than anyone can do it. To this day, many pack runners use Oprah’s 4:29 as a “must beat” standard. As the 90s came to a close, women’s participation numbers in the marathon had doubled from the late 80s. As the 21st century hit running, the marathon added a new twist: the charity runner. Charity groups began partnering with marathon organizations in the mid 1990s and became a growth vehicle for many small to medium sized marathons. Many of these participants were women and their running style and speed was not without controversy. Many veteran runners felt that the charity runners were not giving back to running. There was encouragement to the new marathoners to train and compete, yet there was also concern that these new runners would disappear once their “finish a marathon” goal had been met. The marathon remains strong. More sponsorship dollars flow to marathons than any other running event. Professional distance runners are lured away from the track, because they see the money that exists in the marathon that is not as prevalent on the track.

Today we have recently seen a huge breakthrough by another American Male runner in Dathan Ritzenheim. “Ritz” as he is called broke the 13 year old American Record in the 5000 meters. He is now hailed as another track hero and rock star. Could other events in track become draws to the public like the 100m, the mile and marathon have done over the past 30 to 100 years? Time is the telltale sign.

In the meantime, let’s see if some enterprising event producers can find new exciting ways to get track events shown on TV. The world has new stars that have grabbed our attention. Let’s not let this gift of bright new stars fade away.