While running has never been more popular, interest in elite competition is at an all-time low. Which is a shame
In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re currently in the middle of a running boom. Not since the halcyon days of the 1980s has there been the sheer numbers of people – men and women, young and old – pounding pavements, trails and roads in order to lose weight, maintain a healthy lifestyle or, as is increasingly the case, complete the holy grail: the marathon.
Indeed, the marathon today, like in the 1980s, is often seen as the only race distance that matters. Anybody who runs regularly will be familiar with the oft-asked question: “So are you training for a marathon, then?” It’s a distance that has well and truly captured the collective imagination, with finishers’ medals rightly seen as worthwhile and hard-won mementos of personal achievement.
Yet ask the thousands of dedicated runners who finished the London marathon back in April about who actually won the race, and it’s likely that you’ll be met with a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders. They might recall that Mo Farah ran half the distance, but who occupied the top three positions? Some Kenyans, maybe. Or Ethiopians?
While recreational footballers, rugby players and cricketers, even tennis players, generally have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the fortunes of the elite players in their chosen sports and tend to watch international and national level competition with keen interest, many runners know little of elite track and field and road running and care even less, with the odd exception of the Olympics or icons such as Mo Farah, who transcend the sport.
Alone on the mall, the winner of the London Marathon. But can you name him? Photograph: Tom Jenkins
So, while distance running as an activity has never been more popular, interest in elite competition is, it would seem, at an all-time low.
This is a huge shame. The stories of dedication, sacrifice and determination that frequently lie behind the successes of elite runners can be awe-inspiring. And as runners, we can all surely relate to the ways in which races ebb and flow, as well as the sheer suffering involved in pushing one’s body, whatever the level, to its absolute limit.
Elite marathons can also be genuinely exciting to watch, especially when surges occur late in the races. The mind boggles at how someone can run the final 5km of a marathon in a time that would win many standalone 5K races.
This lack of interest in elite running is not easy to explain, but could possibly be attributed to three key reasons. Firstly, while the likes of the London marathon spend large sums of money on securing a competitive elite field, this seems to be done with the main goal of ensuring a record-breaking winning time, with far less effort expended on telling the stories behind the elite runners and producing engaging narratives.
The recent piece here on the running blog, telling the story of Japhet Koech, showed there are interesting stories to be told but, in marketing terms, the sport is missing a trick.
A second reason for the general lack of engagement might be that for many runners in the UK, it is sometimes difficult to easily relate to the elite competitors. In the 1980s, the London Marathon fields were often headlined by British runners, such as Steve Jones and Charlie Spedding, who were challenging for victory, while back in the 1950s and earlier,huge crowds regularly flocked to London’s White City stadium to watch domestic athletes race each other on the track.
Perhaps back then there was, as in other sports, a much closer relationship between the elites and the masses. Yet now it is all too easy for the media to dismiss the elite competitors as nameless “Kenyans” or “East Africans”. While in Kenya or Ethiopia these runners are widely known and admired, their stories and personalities aren’t known to British or European audiences. It’s difficult to care about how a runner does if we know nothing about them, or their background.
Finally, despite the fact that running as a sport is essentially exactly the same activity at both elite and recreational levels, there is a perception, perhaps exacerbated by the prevalence of fun and charity running, that running is a pastime rather than a sport – a hobby rather than a sport to engage with and compete in, even when that hobby involves entering races. Often runners don’t seem to feel a connection between their own running and what the elite athletes are doing.
With thousands, probably millions, of people actively engaged in the sport of distance running on a weekly basis, elite competition could, perhaps should, be of huge interest to them. It’s sad that it isn’t. How could we change this?
source: The Guardian by Dean Hardman