Olympic Depression

Runners are used to being misfits – so it will be no surprise to us if we’re in the minority with the opinion we’re about to offer: namely, that we didn’t enjoy watching the Beijing Olympic Games very much. Instead of being impressed by all of that “faster, higher, stronger” stuff, we found ourselves depressed about the competitions that interested us the most.

See, here’s the thing about being a distance runner: no matter how old you are, or how fast you are, you get extremely little recognition for your accomplishments. Even when you’re among the best in the world, you’re doomed to an anonymous, impoverished career. You can even be overshadowed under the bright glare of the Olympic flame.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time not too many Olympiads ago where the 1500m run was the premiere event of the Games, with the 10K and marathon a close second and third. While we understand the interest in the seemingly huge variety of sports that have attained Olympic status recently, we hate seeing our beloved events kicked to the curb. (In a related story, we’re puzzled over NBC’s determination to make every person in America a platform diving fan.)

We’ve always known it was tough to be a competitor in distance running events – what we didn’t realize was how difficult it would be just to watch these races at home. Most nights, we waited patiently through synchronized diving and trampoline gymnastics and preliminary BMX heats (called “motos” – see? We were actually paying attention) without any idea when our coveted events might appear.

Unfortunately, TV listings weren’t much help to us, either – they’d only list “track and field” without mentioning whether it was the 5K final or the prelims of the women’s shot put. Our options were to record and wade through 20 hours of coverage each day, or take our chances that some of the high-profile distance races would be shown in prime time. You already know how that one panned out.

Even when we found our races, the coverage was sadly limited. For example, the women’s 10K was televised at 2AM - and even at that late hour, NBC only aired the first 4 minutes and last 4 minutes of the race. Consequently, most U.S. viewers missed an incredible performance from Shalane Flanagan, who won a bronze medal in an American record time of 30:22.

It’s almost certain that nobody at NBC suspected Flanagan was going to medal, which explains how the coverage got buried in the middle of the night. It also illustrates another sad truth of distance running: if there aren’t any Americans competing for medals, you have NO chance of seeing the event on TV. During the women’s marathon, American cameras didn’t even show the finish of Blake Russell, the only U.S. woman to complete the race, who came in less than one minute behind world-record holder Paula Radcliffe.

However, fans of distance running enjoy these races even if U.S. athletes are not involved. It’s like being an American soccer fan who enjoys watching David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. We always cheer for American favorites like Blake Russell, Ryan Hall, and Dathan Ritzenhein, but we also enjoy the brilliance of Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, Aussie Craig Mottram, Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, and other foreign distance running heroes.

Unfortunately, we realize that these folks will always play second banana to marquee names like Phelps, Nastia, or Walsh & May (all very attractive to look at, by the way – which is no small factor in TV exposure) – so it’s clear that distance running needs a bit of an image makeover. At the same time, maybe we could infuse a bit of running’s old-fashioned sensibility into some of the higher profile sports.

For example, it seems like there’s always a controversy about gymnastics scoring. This year, Nastia Liukin lost a gold medal to a competitor with the exact same score. If runners were in charge, we’d alter the events to eliminate any scoring issues. Take the balance beam; instead of 90-second routines that are different for each competitor, we’d set up a row of several parallel beams that are about 50 meters in length, then have the gymnasts race on the beams simultaneously. They’d still be required to do 4 back flips and 2 pirouettes and other tricks before they dismount at the other end – but in this case, the fastest gymnast who gets across without falling wins. Controversy solved!

There’s no question that swimming is one of the most popular events at the Games, even when Phelps isn’t in the pool. Some runners might find it strange that swimming has several races over the same distance using four different strokes. For runners, the object of races is to reward the person who gets from point A to point B the fastest, regardless of what type of stride they use - but maybe this is an area we could tweak to our advantage for next time.

We’re thinking that the runners could have competitions at all the standard distances, but include hopping, skipping, and backward running categories in addition to the usual “running forward” technique. They could also have medley events for those who excel in all four disciplines. Throw in a couple of relays (forward-style and medley), and a talented guy like Usain Bolt could definitely win 8 or more gold medals.

It’s sad that we may someday need to resort to carnival-style stunts in order to attract viewers to what were once the most prestigious events in the Olympics. What we really need is a stunningly beautiful, overwhelmingly dominant, American-born runner who can enter 10 different events as the odds-on favorite – but sadly, that wish may go ungranted for quite a while.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to hunt around the TV dial in the dead of night, resigned to our pitiful fate as frustrated fans of long distance running.


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