Ostensibly, it is ludicrous to question the health of running. The sport is experiencing unprecedented growth in its numbers as countless numbers take up the sport around the world. Participation in road races around the world is burgeoning and fields numbering in the tens of thousands are commonplace. In the United States, 8.1 million people finished a road race in 2005 according to the Road Running Information Center, approximately 3% of the adult population. The highest levels of the sport are also doing well as distance running, particularly on the roads, remains fiercely
competitive. Strong fields at the newly-minted World Marathon Majors are evidence.
However, there is a latent instability inherent in the sport. At least in North America, running appears to be increasingly an activity and far less a sport. Though more and more people are involved in running, it is on a purely non-competitive basis. Though competition at the professional level is arguably stronger than ever, public interest in professional competition, dominated by Africans, is lower than ever.
Coupled with changing economics rooted in non-competitive enjoyment, the future is at best uncertain for running as a sport. It seems ridiculous to offer large purses when the competition at the front of the pack has little to no interest for most customers, the competitors sadly indistinguishable. The success of the Marine Corps Marathon, a prominent race with roughly 30,000 finishers and no prize money, testifies to this reality.
Public interest in competitive running, obviously but unquantifiably at a low, may have been best crystallized by the recent New York Marathon. When little-known Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil won the New York Marathon earlier this month, he did so in near-total obscurity in the world’s largest media market. Indeed, even most runners are more aware that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong ran the race than they are that Gomes dos Santos’ won it. On message boards and blogs, Armstrong’s intentions, training, goals, perseverance received microscopic examination. Few, if any, were concerned with Gomes dos Santos’ background prior to the race or the daring strategy he employed so successfully.
It is hardly difficult to understand why interest distance running has waned to the point where the appearance of a top American runner on the cover of Sports Illustrated, once a reality, is now unthinkable. The complete dominance of the sport at all levels and disciplines by Africans, especially Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans, has destroyed interest in Western countries.
Every single one of the 73 fastest 10,000 metre times by men have been recorded by Africans. For marathons, the number is 45 of the top 50. At the 2005 World Championships, 12 of the 15 finalists in the men’s 5,000 metres were born in Africa. At the 2006 World Cross Country Championships, the first 16 finishers in the men’s long race were born in Africa, as were the members of 10 of the 20 teams. Many European countries no longer enter international competitions due to European dominance. African runners win races in Europe, North America and elsewhere in anonymity, known to most as a single uniform entity: “the Kenyans”.
Needless to say, television coverage of major championships and races is non-existent, newspaper coverage limited to doping scandals. It seems that the only thing that can arouse interest in competitive distance running is an unfortunate accident. Videos of Robert Cheruiyot falling at the finish line of last month’s Chicago Marathon made it to the mainstream, thanks to the Internet.
Ultimately, however, it is doubtful that the death of running as a sport will ever be complete or that its obscurity will matter. Running may become an activity for most, but the sport at the highest levels will always be around for myriad reasons. Olympic champions in all sorts of sports come about regardless of the sport’s popularity. Moreover, some degree of competition in running will naturally always remain, as it did on a small scale in the often-romanticized past.
As for the latter question, it should be noted that running is a participatory sport. Though it was once more popular, running never was and never will be a spectator sport in the way of football or baseball. Most of those who enjoy running as a sport do so on the basis of an intimate connection with the sport as a participant. To those who care about the winners and losers of a race, those will be
around long after recreational marathoning has ceased to be a cultural fad. Running is far too natural a sport to ever be fully eliminated, no matter how obscure it may become. Few runners have ever run solely for money or fame, most have run for the
enjoyment and the competition.