REAVIS EXHORTS RACE DIRECTORS TO "CREATE EVENTS THAT INSPIRE" By David Monti (c) 2008 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (08-Nov) -- Focusing on mass participation over elite competition has left the United States with a dull and indistinctive offering of road races, putting competitive running out of the national media spotlight and relegating distance running to the style pages of daily newspapers.
So said veteran running broadcaster Toni Reavis as he gave the keynote address to wrap up the Road Race Management Race Directors Meeting here today.
Reavis, whose seminal radio show Runner's Digest debuted in Boston in 1977 during the first running boom, exhorted the gathering of race directors, officials and running industry vendors to "create events that inspire," and help combat childhood obesity by creating another generation of distance running heroes, in the mold of Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit and Alberto Salazar.
"I think there is an overlooked and common problem," said Reavis about how race organizers emphasize participation statistics and charity fundraising over elite competition. He said that he had looked forward seeing another generation of running heroes to follow the sport's 1970's and 1980's legends, only to be repeatedly disappointed.
"That was the apogee of American distance running," said Reavis of 1980 through 1985 when Salazar won the New York City Marathon three times and Benoit won Chicago in a world record 2:21:21. Running enjoyed a prominent place in sports pages and in the minds of average sports fans. He recalled how the Rotterdam Marathon was once shown live in the United States because Salazar was competing against Olympic gold medalist, Carlos Lopes.
According to Reavis, the "one and done" nature of regional road races, where local organizers select their fields without coordinating with other events to create a true series and leverage media and fan interest, combined with a massive influx of foreign athletes has made the sport irrelevant for typical sports fans.
"We used to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated," said Reavis whose research showed that the last runner to make the cover of S.I. was sprinter Marion Jones in October, 2000. He said that was only because her ex-husband, C.J. Hunter, had been convicted of a doping violation.
Reavis also said that the influx of foreign athletes (mostly from Africa), combined with a stagnation in prize money (in inflation-adjusted terms) and a reluctance of race directors to "control their fields," had dramatically changed the look of USA road racing, rendering race fields almost completely homogeneous and stifling the creation and promotion of home country heroes. The room fell silent at the seriousness of Reavis's charges.
"At first it was a nice spice to the competitions," he said of the sprinkling of African athletes who joined the USA road racing series in the 1980s. He said the current group of African athletes had formed a potent pool of "cheap labor" willing to work for less money than Americans. He pointed out that the $10,000 first prize from the Cascade Run-Off 15-K in the 1980's is equivalent to $27,000 in today's dollars. There is no non-marathon road race in America offering $27,000 to their winners.
Reavis also indicted large charity groups which have used running events to their own advantage to raise money for causes which have nothing to do with the sport, while putting almost nothing back into running. Race organizers now depend on charity runners to fill their fields; sponsors typically find larger events more attractive to invest in while they have become less and less interested in the competitive part of the road races. Reavis deplored the "everyone's a winner" mantra of some events.
"Even though they are wonderful," he said of big charities like the Leukemia Society's Team in Training program, "what do they have to do with running?"
Instead, Reavis said, distance running organizers should use their events to inspire children to get moving, helping to fight childhood obesity, one of America's top health problems. He encouraged the race directors to partner with existing and successful childhood running programs, like the Mighty Milers created by the New York Road Runners Foundation, which has gotten over 50,000 children running under volunteer coaches. Reavis saw this as a huge opportunity for the sport, to essentially become it's own charity.
"Running speaks directly to that line," said Reavis. "But, we need heroes to make that happen. Part of the job of our industry is to create the hims and the hers that kids want to be."
Reavis tried to end his talk on an uplifting note. Leaning forward and using the full depth of his signature baritone voice, he provided his audience with this closing shot: "Helping save the next generation; that's the task before us."
PHOTO: Toni Reavis giving the keynote address at the 2008 Road Race Management Race Directors' Meeting (photo by David Monti)