Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 27 Mar 1999 09:20:47 -0500

Too Old at 24?

(from RC 282)

Primo Nebiolo has come out with some winning ideas and some wacky ones in his long reign as the godfather of international track and field. This idea rates as one of his wackiest.

Nebiolo proposes limiting Olympic track to athletes 23 and younger. Creating a "junior Olympics," he reasons, would boost prestige for the World Championships sponsored by his IAAF.

Dumb, dumb, dumb! This move would penalize runners for patience. It would declare them obsolete on their 24th birthday, before they had time to get really good.

The Olympics are the biggest draw in the sport, for fans as well as athletes. This remains true no matter how many World Championships that Nebiolo and crew conduct, and no matter what the IOC's band of bandits does to undermine the Games.

The Olympics, not the Worlds or the world records, create legends. If the Games had always been 23-and-below, we wouldn't remember Emil Zatopek (who first won gold at 26) or Carlos Lopes (a winner at 37).

Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit would have been too old to run the marathons they won. Lasse Viren couldn't have competed in his second Olympics (where he again won twice), or Francie Larrieu in her third, fourth and fifth.

Age-limiting would be disastrous for U.S. track, which already struggles to stay on its feet as a spectator sport. The change would rob the showcase meet of the best talent, and even the most casual American onlooker would notice this was no longer a World Series or Super Bowl but only a minor-league meet.

Glance at the Track & Field News world rankings for last year. The average age for all ranked runners -- 10 per event in the nine Olympic races of 1500 meters and longer -- was 26.4.

None of the number-ones could have competed in the Games if 1998 had been an Olympic year. The youngest leading men was 24-year-old Hicham El Guerrouj (1500). The youngest top woman: 29-year-old Zohra Ouaziz (5000).

Fewer than one-third of the ranked runners would have remained eligible for an under-24 Olympics. Only one was a marathoner, Jackson Kabiba at 22.

Kabiba is Kenyan, as are the great majority of other young rankees. Meaning the Olympics would become even more of a one-nation distance showplace than they already are. Surely this isn't what the godfather has in mind when he proposes age limits.

American officials must fight the move because the best runners here are even older than worldwide averages. Our number-ones in the distance races last year averaged 27.2 for men and 34.0 for women. Of these, only 10,000 leader Dan Browne at 23 could have run in an age-limited Olympics.

Historically, younger Americans have done well. Jim Ryun, Gerry Lindgren and Francie Larrieu all were Olympians as teenagers.

Mary Decker, Rick Riley and Steve Prefontaine also competed internationally in their teens. Joan Benoit set her first U.S. marathon record at 22. Alberto Salazar set his disputed world best at 23.

But that all happened at least 18 years ago. Americans no longer run so well so early.

They now look toward peaking in their mid-20s and later. Don't deny them access to the sport's highest mountaintop because they take the time to climb correctly.

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