The Problem with The (American) Marathon
Over the past few decades, after the running boom of the 1970’s, we’ve seen a steady decline in the competitiveness of American distance runners. This is hardly surprising in a country where everyone is told they’re the best at everything, and at the end of the day everyone gets a trophy.
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The year is 490 B.C.E., and the Athenians are at war with the Persians. After the particularly crucial battle of Marathon, the dust settles and it becomes clear that the underdog Athenians have held off the Persians for the time being. A young soldier, Pheidippides, is sent back to Athens to relay the news of the victory to the city. After completing the 24-mile run, he announces, “Rejoice, we conquer!” and promptly collapses and dies. Fast forward 2200 years- same location- and you will see Spyridon Louis win the first Olympic marathon race along the same course once traversed by Pheidippides. Only 100 years later, the very route once memorialized in the first Olympic games, is now home to an annual marathon, just like every other major city in the world. Every year you can watch tens of thousands of overweight, undertrained “athletes” struggle to half jog, half walk across 26.2 miles of, at least in the running world, sacred ground. What happened? Why, in such a short period of time, has the once-revered ultimate challenge to the human body become the new, trendy, social event of the year?
Well, it hasn’t happened everywhere- at least not yet. There are still a few untainted locations across the globe where the marathon is revered and serious running is treated as a way of life. Most of them are in the eastern half of Africa. Grant Jarvie, the Head of the Department of Sports Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland has spent years researching why East African runners are so dominant in long distance races. In his chapter of the book “East African Running”, he explains that 16 African countries are in the top 20 poorest in the world. They are unable to afford expensive equipment needed for most sports, so it is only natural that they would take up running- the simplest form of athletic competition. Many live on less than $2 a day, yet throughout the second half of the last century, and so far in this one, the vast majority of the top performances in distances of 3000 meters and above have come from Kenyans or Ethiopians (Jarvie 24, 31). It is often argued that Africans are better at these events simply due to more natural physical ability. This is the lazy American’s excuse.
The main reason, as Jarvie argues, is that distance running is the East African’s ticket out of poverty. From a young age, children are encouraged to train in order to prepare them for a possible running career. Even the small amounts of money awarded for winning American road races are enough to transform the lives of everyone in a village. A survey of elite Kenyan female runners showed that for 50% of them, money was their main motivation. Only 2% said they were motivated by fun (Jarvie 32).