Saturday, April 26, 2014

Missing the Real Outrage

The big stories that came out of this year's running of the Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi's remarkable win, 2 women under 2:20, Shalane Flanaghan's gutsy run and the healing for a city traumatized by last year's tragedy, are getting slightly overshadowed by a scandal.

People have discovered that runner's like to "bandit" the Boston Marathon.  For those of you not familiar with the term "bandit," it refers to someone who runs a race that they haven't paid entry for or otherwise qualified to run in.  The uproar began when a woman who was entered in this year's race, discovered four other people with her bib number as she checked the post-race photos.  The woman made the mistake of posting a photo of her bib online.  The ingenious assholes took advantage of that and created counterfeit bibs in order to get to the starting line. 

The revelation shouldn't surprise anyone because being a "bandit" at Boston is something of a tradition.  It goes back decades.  Running Boston used to carry with it some panache, prestige for the distance running community.  The first time I broke 3 hours in a marathon was in 1977.  I ran 2:57:14.  I missed qualifying for Boston by 7:14.  That was in 1977.  More people than ever run now and yet the qualifying standard for a 21-year-old male now stands at 3:05. 

Running a marathon under 2:50 isn't easy.  I didn't do it until 1985 when I was age 30, but by then Boston had bumped up the qualifying standard to a sub-3 hour effort.  That kept the fields for the race relatively small, usually just a thousand by the late 70's but slowly those numbers grew as more and more people took up marathon running.

By the time I actually decided to go and run Boston I did it on a whim, qualifying in 1994.  I qualified by running in an extremely difficult marathon in St. Louis just two months before Boston, running just 45 seconds under the 3:15 qualifying standard for a my age group at the time.  I joined about 12,000 or so runners for that race, ironically that was the same year they started allowing charity runners into the race.  It was the largest field ever, at the time.

The following year, Boston's centennial, the numbers skyrocketed.  They let just about anyone in who wanted to, run it.  I think they had close to 20,000 runners.  I think at that point the organizers realized something, they could make a lot of money with a lot more runners.  The cows were out of the barn, so to speak.

I didn't go back to Boston until 2003 and the change in field size was stunning.  I didn't run due to an injury, but the Czarina did.  They still did a mass start for the race.  It would take the slower runners as much as 15 minutes if not more to cross the start line.  I think it took the Czarina a good 10 minutes to get there.  By comparison, in 1994 it had taken me about 3 minutes to make it to the starting line.

Now the race is so bloated they start it in waves.  And in light of last year's tragedy, the organizers decided to expand the field to a whopping 36,000.  Boston organizers won't say exactly how many but  several thousand of those runners didn't meet the qualifying standard.  They get in because they are running for a charity.  Therein lies the rub.  Thousands of Boston qualifiers don't get in because organizers feel obligated to make room for these charity runners.  That in turn creates a situation ripe for people who feel the need to "bandit" the race.

People used to "bandit" because they simply couldn't reach the tough qualifying times.  Now they do it because the field fills up in just a few hours.  So screw the phony baloney outrage over these "bandits."  Don't get me wrong, I hate "bandits," but Boston created this mess because of the way it handles entries.  I don't feel sorry for the BAA.  The race makes a ton of dough.  It's not taxing any resources.  I guess I'm just missing the point from the outraged purists.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


The Lawrence Journal-World wrote an editorial as the Kansas Relays got underway this week in its brand new facilities called Rock Chalk Park.  The LJW was wishing that these world class facilities would mean the Kansas Relays is "primed" to return as one of the nation's best track and field competitions.  It pains me to report that it's not and I  doubt whether it will ever be again.

I blogged a few weeks back about K.U.'s decision to pull its budget to bring elite professional track stars to the meet.  It took a herculean effort to salvage the downtown shot put competition and that was the only one with nary a pro in sight.  The meet has become a sensational high school meet.  The college competition is tepid at best.

The university portion of the meet began to fall about nearly 40 years ago when Arkansas stopped coming.  The bleeding of top collegiate teams never ended.  I only saw one other top tier Division 1 school with athletes at the meet, Nebraska.  There were a handful of athletes from other lesser D1 lights like Rice, but consider this.  The two other D1 schools in the Sunflower State, Wichita State and Kansas State were nowhere to be found.

The university portion will never recover.  Mt. Sac now falls on the same weekend as the Relays and if you're a decent distance runner, you're going out to California to run fast.  Heck, even K.U. has sent its best runners in the past out to this meet, much to my consternation.  And there are a handful of other meets spread across the country that now compete against the Relays including one that Oklahoma hosts and one at Ohio State. 

K.U. will have to put some serious manpower and money behind the Relays if it ever expects it to land on a par with Drake.  Don't even think that it can share the same spotlight as the Penn Relays.  No, unless The University of Kansas decides that the Relays deserves first class treatment it is destined to be nothing more than a great high school track and field meet.  And maybe that's okay. 

Those of us who love the Relays will always have memories of such great athletes as Jim Ryun,  Stacy Dragila, Mike Boit and Maurice Greene.  But I feel gypped that the city to build these facilities only to have K.U. pull the rug out from underneath the meet by cutting a big chunk of its budget. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

One Size Doesn't Fit All

The wreck of a track and field meet that USATF held in Albuquerque six weeks ago has created a sideshow that could very well change the sport in some very dramatic ways.  When I last blogged about this meet we had two controversial disqualifications that left athletes pissed off to the max and fans shaking their heads.  USATF stepped up last week and said it would form a committee to examine the disqualifications, more than a full month after the meet happened.

What's become all too clear is that USATF is for amateurs.  It has no business running the professional side of track and field.  An organization that handles youth track to masters track simply should not be dealing with a professional sport where potentially large sums of money hang in the balance.

Professional track and field athletes should expect and demand a professionally run organization.  The athletes and their coaches should have a clear understanding of the sports rules and regulations.  The shoe companies cannot impose their will on how the sport is run.  Favored shoe company status (Yes, I'm talking about NIKE) is unfair. 

There is rumbling that a boycott of this summer's outdoor national championship meet could come about should the Albuquerque committee's findings be less than satisfactory.  Given the fact there are no World Championship slots up for grabs a boycott by non-NIKE athletes wouldn't surprise me in the least.  I think it would be a good thing. 

A better thing would be for Max Siegel to sit down with the athletes, seriously, the top 20 in each event, and figure out a way to divorce the professional side of the sport from the amateur side.  Siegel needs to bring all the shoe companies to the table and figure out how to make it possible.

The biggest hurdle is money.  I'm guessing that a lot of USATF relies heavily from all those membership fees it sucks in from youth and masters athletes.  Although, I'm sure this is chump change when compared to the sponsorship money that is at stake.  The devil will be in the details.

Now I'm not saying USATF should go away altogether.  The athletes need the officials and judges that USATF has trained to run their meets.  The bulk of those folks work for free.  And therein lies the crux.  A professional sport in the hands of unpaid part-timers. 

It's easy to see why Albuquerque turned into such a cluster fuck.  That's why in the end, at the very biggest meets, where money and prestige is on the line, there has to be an unbiased panel making decisions on how gets in and who doesn't, who gets disqualified and how moves on.  But that won't happen until a house cleaning takes place at the highest reaches of USATF.  Too many coaches and too many officials have allegiances and enemies that have led to mess.  I'll be honest, I don't see an easy fix to this can of worms.