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RE: Why was distance running so popular in the 70s (or 80s)? Was it more popular than football?
The generation where distance racing (as opposed to running) was a popular activity was the Baby Boomers. Not before and not since, except maybe the last 5 or so years. Of this I am certain.

As for why I have no idea. I do agree with Tom Derderian that distance racing's popularity began to grow just after 1960 but it took a whole decade for it to grow enough that anyone noticed.

Baby boomers were raised by an extremely tough generation, one that got through the Depression and WWII, but the baby boomers didn't have much to use that toughness for besides avoiding getting killed in Vietnam. They were also a highly individualistic generation as far as I can tell. The economy was good enough that you didn't have to get serious about a real job right away. Track was on TV more than it is now and was a bigger deal in the sports press.

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