Back in the 1970’s and 80’s the first aerobic craze hit North America. Kenneth Cooper got people excited about exercise with his bestselling book, “Aerobics” in 1968. Running burst onto the scene as a popular activity and athletes like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers became cultural icons.
My experience in the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s running races from 800 meters to 20 kilometers revealed a depth of competition unlike anything I have ever seen since. For example, our local Jasper-Banff relay team could put together 17 local runners capable of running at least 57 minutes for 10 miles. My father as a masters’ runner had to run in a pre-qualifying race to limit the number of competitors in the Edmonton Journal masters’ mile race. This race for age 40 and over was usually won in less than five minutes. 10 K races were generally won in 32 minutes, but there were at least 30 to 40 people who came in under 36 minutes. This depth of talent was in a city of 500 000 in northern Canada.
The trend I’ve seen over the past decade or so is the steep decline in the quality of the competition. Perhaps the only exception is at the elite level where performances are as strong as ever, but this may be mostly due to the influx of African runners and for the women, Russian runners too.
So what is behind this apparent loss of overall quality of running in North America?
Here are my thoughts:
- The obesity epidemic in North America affecting our children. Children are generally less active nowadays. Video gaming, internet, and other sedentary habits along with poor dietary practices are leading to a less active youth. This results in less participation and exposure to sports such as running.
- The loss of active children (and adults) to other activities such as rock climbing, triathlon, team sports, adventure racing and so on. This dilutes the pool of aerobic talent into areas other than running.
- The acceptance of participation versus performance. In the first aerobic boom, running was all about being fast, now there is more of an emphasis on just being a finisher.
- We are all time impoverished. Training properly takes time and planning. Most of us cannot fit in an ideal program. For most people training is a compromise between what you want to do, and what you have time to do.
- Running isn’t sexy. Role models and sport icons tend not to be from running. Think Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Natalie Gulbis and Maria Sharapova. Not to mention many athletes in team sports that are adored and admired by the public (like this guy, for instance).
- Lack of interest by government and private sector in developing running. Private sector funding of professional athletes is a business, running does not have the same marketing audience as say pro football, hockey and so on. In essence, from a dollar perspective it makes little sense to sponsor or develop runners since it does not provide “bang for the buck” in a marketing sense. Governments too, struggle with providing the needs of the nation as a result developing athletes is a low priority as evidenced by their funding levels.
I believe all of these factors (and probably a few more) have eroded the competitiveness of running. In North America, it is a sport that has received relatively little respect and notice.
I miss the days of more competitive running and I think at a certain level all of us do. Competition can only help to develop better runners. Runners who in the future may be the ones we are cheering on in the Olympics or World Championships in Athletics.