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The Best Marathoners Money Can Buy
During the past few years, the story line at major marathons in the USA seems to be following a predictable script. A highly charged, highly motivated group of African runners fight for the big money, while American runners finish back in the pack, left to lament just why they can't compete for the top prize. Boston, L.A., New York-it's the same old story. David Morris' fourth place finish in Chicago last month was an exception to the rule, but a rare one indeed.

  
The Best Marathoners Money Can Buy

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By Don Allison
Posted Tuesday, 12 January, 1999

During the past few years, the story line at major marathons in the USA seems to be following a predictable script. A highly charged, highly motivated group of African runners fight for the big money, while American runners finish back in the pack, left to lament just why they can't compete for the top prize. Boston, L.A., New York-it's the same old story. David Morris' fourth place finish in Chicago last month was an exception to the rule, but a rare one indeed.

There was an outcry a few years back for "American only" prize money, in hopes that such a monetary incentive would help raise the flagging spirits and performances of the top American marathoners. The Pittsburgh Marathon took that route, and Keith Brantly was even able to snag a six-figure reward for a 2:12 clocking in 1998.

Still, the results continue to be startlingly weak for the top US marathoners. Such is the state that it is possible this nation of 250 million will not be able to produce three men capable of meeting the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:14 for the Sydney Games next year. Morris is the only runner to have made that mark this year. Among the 10 fastest US marathoners in 1999 are two runners born and raised abroad and two over the age of 40. That's not a ringing endorsement for high quality marathon running in this country!

Should you even care about the lack of production among elite American marathoners? One could certainly understand if you did not. Whether or not the US produces another Boston or New York Marathon champion in our lifetime will have little or no effect on your own running. The marathon boom seems to be going full steam despite the fact that the names of the top finishers are hard to pronounce and not that well known.

Sure, we would all enjoy a small sense of national pride should one of our own step onto the Olympic medal podium after the final event of the Sydney games, but barring some quick action by the immigration service, it is highly unlikely that will happen. Such as it is, life will go on.

But there are people out there who spend time worrying, even agonizing over the sad state of affairs in American marathon running. Some of these folks even have gone so far as to concoct proposals that might turn things around. In a meeting of the organization Running USA last week in New York one such proposal was put forth suggesting that to compete with the world's best, American marathoners need to be subsidized so that they train full time. And that the money to pay for this should come from...well, you and I, and every one else who runs marathons in the USA. Sports television marketer Barry Frank proposed that $1 be added to the entry fee of every marathon in the country, which would then go towards an elite runner training program. He estimates this will raise in the range of $500,000 to $750,000 for "training subsidies."

Whoa-I don't know if I want to see am American medal winner that much! How about you?

This begs the question: Do elite runners really need to be subsidized so that they can train full time? As it is, shoe companies support several of the top marathoners. In addition, they win money at shorter distance races, many of which have an American only prize money pool. Even big marathons such as Pittsburgh offer nearly all of its prize purse to American runners. The top finishers in the Olympic Trials race next spring will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts. There is even a subsidy program already in place by the RRCA, the "Roads Scholar" program. Is giving these or other marathoners more money going to make them faster? How much motivation does one need to train hard?

Whatever happened to being paid after a great marathon performance, instead of before? No one subsidized Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar and Pete Pfitzinger when they were competing at a world-class level. They say it's more competitive nowadays, but hardly anyone is coming close to the times those guys ran 20 years ago.

It will be interesting to see how far this proposal gets. Race directors, even those of successful marathons, tend to watch the bottom line very closely and are loathe to increase their entry fee simply as conduit to something that will not go directly towards improving their own event.

Maybe Americans are not that interested, motivated or capable of competing at a world-class level in this day and age of marathon running. Maybe a young runner will come along with the talent and desire to be that fast and just go ahead and do it. Maybe that runner will carry a few other Americans to the top with him, much like Rodgers and Shorter did in the 1970s. I know this much: the next American runner to run a 2:08 or 2:07 marathon is not going to have to worry where his next meal is coming from. And perhaps that one-dollar-a-runner subsidy money he didn't need to become world class can be put towards a better marathon for the rest of us.

 

 

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