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mother clucker
RE: Why was distance running so popular in the 70s (or 80s)? Was it more popular than football?
As with most "movements" there wasn't just one thing.

Multiple things were occurring simultaneously.

Rise of Nike
Budweiser and Coors poured lots of money into advertising and races.
Lots of people were kicking over from heart disease and there was an emphasis placed on exercise and diet.
Road races became more main stream - lots of people racing down Main Street USA - it was a novelty.
More of an emphasis was placed on competition and not so much on participation. People would ask how high you placed or how far behind the winner - they had not yet been indoctrinated into "finishing is winning".
People who ran back then were actually fit.
If you wanted to run Boston - qualifying was a real challenge.
Track meets and marathons were covered live or ~1 hour delay, start to finish. There were only 3 - 4 channels back then.
American guys won races or the winners had names that people could pronounce.

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