Running 2003: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times
In the world of running in 2003, it was the best of times, and the worst of times.
Posted Wednesday, 31 December, 2003
Quick quiz: Name one—just one—winner at this past summer’s World Track and Field Championships. Not a track fan? O.k. then, name the winner of the 2003 Boston Marathon. Or New York. Or Chicago. Tough questions all. Now for an easy one: who was the winner of the 2003 Tour de France cycling race? Suffice it to say that strange as it seems, almost all runners know the answer to that one. So goes the sport of running. As more and more people pour into the sport on a participatory level, fewer than ever are paying attention to what is going on at the elite, word-class level.
That may not necessarily be a bad thing. The biggest news occurred this past summer, when a drug scandal of gigantic proportions surfaced, creating yet another black eye for the sport as it heads into an Olympic year. The “designer” steroid THG was purported to have been taken by several top-level track athletes. Even the exalted Kenyans were not beyond the taint of scandal. Olympic medalist Bernard Lagat was found to have tested positive for a performance enhancing substance, although his retest proved to be negative. But the nasty fallout from this news called into question just about every performance by every elite runner. Was it real, or was it enhanced? Only the athlete knows, apparently. Spectators were left to only speculate.
Amidst this morass of negativity, there was one shining light, in the person of Paula Radcliffe. The speedy Brit set a women’s world marathon record in London in April, clocking an almost unthinkable 2:15:25. To put that time in perspective, consider that no one from all of England—male or female—ran a faster marathon in 2003. To further enhance Radcliffe’s stature in the sport, she is the most outspoken crusader against performace enhancing drugs, calling out any and all drug cheats and challenging those even those remotely suspected to come clean. If anyone can engender confidence in the public for non-artificially aided performances, Paula Radcliffe is that individual. As one British reporter stated, if Radcliffe were ever to test positive, they might as well cancel track and field altogether.
Some say that might be a good idea in any event. Inevitably however, the sport, and the Olympic Games, will go on—TGH or no THG—returning to its ancient roots in Athens, Greece next summer. Track and field is the most tradition-laden of all Olympic sports, its roots dating back to the original games held centuries ago. The human species has always sought the answer to the question, who is the fastest? In the current era, determining those champions through competition is not enough. For the sport to regain any kind of credibility, and to attract the interest of the tens of thousands who compete in road races and marathons, those champions must be believed to be free of performance enhancing drugs, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Sadly, barring a huge technological advancement, that is unlikely to become a reality in 2004.
None of this bad karma is likely to filter down to the masses that populate the thousands of road races and marathons in the U.S. and other countries, however. In the face of ever-escalating entry fees and the aforementioned lack of interest in the winner’s names or times, road racing has never been more popular. Certainly this trend will continue, at least for the foreseeable future. Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track and Field, asked about the state of the sport, commented, “It is the best of times, and the worst of times.” How true this Dickensian allusion. The ironic twist however, is that it is those who run the best of times in competition are primarily responsible for the worst of times in terms of the perception of the sport.
Some other notable events from the past year:
Marathon records all around: 2003 saw world records fall in the marathon, for the women, men, and masters. Paula Radcliffe blazed to a 2:15:25 in London, while Kenyan Paul Tergat broke through the 2:05 barrier in Berlin, clocking 2:04:55. In addition, Mexico’s Andres Espinosa ran 2:08 in Berlin at the age of 40, and Ed Whitlock became the first over the age of 70 to break three hours.
Olympic disappointment: An Olympic year, 2004 will also bring the U.S. trials, but one American that will not be competing is Khalid Khannouchi. Although a U.S. citizen now, Khannouchi is injured and will thus have to miss the marathon trials in Birmingham, Alabama in February and the Games in Athens later in the year. Four years ago, Khannouchi also missed the Olympic 26-miler, as his U.S. citizenship did come in time for the Sydney games.
Bad break: ‘70s and ‘80s running boom icon Bill Rodgers suffered his first serious running injury in nearly a quarter century, breaking his leg in a freak injury, stepping off a curb during a run. The four-time Boston and New York Marathon winner has vowed to return to competition in 2004.
Rising stars: There were bright spots amidst the controversy in track and field; among them were two up and coming stars. Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele dominated distance running, capturing both long and short world cross country titles and then beating countryman Haile Gebrselhaisse in the 10,000 meter final in the World Championships. As unfathomable as it may seem, he may turn out to be even better than the man considered the greatest of all time. On the women’s side, U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix established herself as one the world’s best at the tender age of 17, a likely successor to Marion Jones. An Olympic medal as a teenager? It may well happen for this promising newcomer.
Banking on sponsorship: The New York Marathon went the way of other top races by selling title naming rights. The race will be known furthermore as the ING New York Marathon. As the rich races got richer, some of the less well-to-do faltered. Both the Pittsburgh and Ocean State Marathons announced they will not be run in 2004.
Etcetera: Dathan Ritzenhein, a promising high school star in 2001, returned from injury to capture the NCAA Cross Country title. Canadian Peter Reid Snagged this third Hawaii Ironman Triathlon title, while his wife Lori Bowden won the women’s race. Jenny Spangler set a U.S. Women’s masters marathon record in Chicago, while masters star Eddy Hellybucyk won the Twin Cities Marathon outright. Celebrity marathoners were all the rage: movie actor Will Ferrell ran the Boston Marathon in 3:58, while rapper P. Diddy clocked 4:15 in New York.
Farewell: As is always the case, the sport said goodbye to some familiar faces, including former Boston Marathon winner Johnny Miles 97), London Marathon founder (and participant in the history’s first sub four-minute mile) Chris Brasher (74), former Boston Marathon director Will Cloney (91), and University of Alabama track star David Kamani (25).