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

Wed, 5 Nov 2003 08:11:26 -0500

Our Sport

RUNNING COMMENTARY 491

(rerun from November 1997 RC)

Here's a story I wish I'd written. I don't know its writer, Bill Gray, and don't read his magazine, Tennis. But with a few word changes, his lines are a perfect fit with running.

Gray's column begins, "I don't know about you, but I'm through apologizing for Our Game because it isn't a mass-consumption sport and doesn't have a Tiger in its tank to fuel it into 21st-century mega-popularity. And I'm weary of the outside mass media crowing about Our Game's 'demise'."

He decries attempts "to make Our Game more like the other games... We're not like the other games.

"What team-sports fans and the outside media that obsessively cover other games don't understand is our unique culture. In tennis we'd rather PLAY Our Game than watch it lying down like the team-sports couch potatoes."

The same could be said for OUR Sport, running. Work to streamline and modernize the sport, to be sure. Grind off its rough edges accumulated in the last 30 years, certainly.

But at the same time recognize all that's right about Our Sport instead of dwelling always on the few things that are wrong. Don't try to make over running in the image of the mega-popular sports, because ours isn't like any of them.

Ours has less in common with ESPN Sport Center favorites football and basketball, baseball and hockey than with... well, tennis, since the comparison allows me to use more of Bill Gray's lines. I wish I'd said this as well, but failing that, I shamelessly borrow from him.

"The reason few of us tune in live to the French and Wimbledon finals [translation for runners: World Track Championships and New York City Marathon] is that most of us are on the [roads] on those weekend mornings -- [running]... We don't really care who wins [the big events], which is impossible for team-sports fans to understand, especially those who slip into clinical depressions when their team loses the Super Bowl."

Runners aren't uninterested in what Gray calls "the high priests and priestesses" of Our Sport. Yet our mental state doesn't ride with their latest results, but with our own. This a lot healthier than worshiping the performances of strangers.

We need to promote what Our Sport is instead of apologizing for what it isn't. It isn't and may never be a high-ratings media attraction, but its strength is in its numbers of participants. Our tribe keeps growing, whether the outside media choose to pay any attention or not.

Few if any sports have less to offer than ours, and this is what I like best about it. Look at all that Our Sport doesn't have:

-- No balls or sticks. No one hits or throws anything. Here the action centers on people, not objects.

-- No timeouts. Once a race starts, it doesn't stop for commercials or any other excuse.

-- No overtime. A race ends at its finish line, with no one ever asked to go the extra mile to settle a score.

-- No substitutions. A weary runner can't call for relief, and an eager but less talented one doesn't have to warm the bench.

-- No referees. At least none in striped shirts who can blow a whistle during a race and assess a penalty on the spot.

-- No silly rules. None more complicated than filing an entry, starting at a scheduled time and place, and staying on the course for the full distance.

-- No fighting. When was the last time you saw two runners stop in midrace and settle an argument with their fists?

-- No tickets. Spectators don't pay to watch the runners. Runners pay to entertain the fans.

-- No booing. People who watch our sport from the sidelines don't act on the urge to verbally abuse a runner who wears the wrong-colored uniform.

-- No betting. Las Vegas publishes no "line" on our events, and no office pools ride on the results.

-- No off-season. We never have to wait six months for the races to start again; there's always one next week, somewhere.

-- No one winner. When winning means meeting personal standards, a race has as many potential winners as it has entrants.

-- No clear losers. When losing means falling short of personal standards, the first finisher can "lose" and the last one can "win."


UPDATE. In the six years since writing this column, my interest in top-level running has waned in proportion to its attempts to mimic the big-media sports. Stories of who's making what and who's taking what are off-turning. So are public displays of bad manners by spoiled athletes and critical fans.

An antidote: spend a morning at a local road race, or an afternoon at a high school cross-country meet. This is Our Sport purest and best.

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