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Five prescriptions to save the sport

Blogger Rory Gilfillan offers five controversial suggestions for fixing the sport of distance running in Canada.

1. Eliminate medals for participation. Medals in the Olympics go to first, second and third place respectively. Distributing hardware ad hoc and celebrating all achievement regardless of objective measure cheapens the endeavour. A 2:20-time performance is not the same as 10-hour time and trying to connect the two achievements through running’s answer to moral relativism (i.e. the ten-hour runner spent more time out on the course and therefore tried as hard as the 2:20 runner) is not only deeply cynical but is also degrading to all competitors. In this vein, race organizers should consider eliminating all prizes and awards that celebrate accomplishments that require no merit or effort but simply luck. Middle- of-the-pack awards may praise the populist sentiment but it robs the sport of its integrity.

2. Ban technology that distracts people from racing. Disqualify all athletes racing with iPhones, iPods or any other technology that distracts runners from paying attention to what’s going on around them. There are lots of venues for people to anesthetise from the rigours of physical activity. They’re called gyms and most of these facilities have all the bells, whistles, televisions, and piped-in music that grant even the most reluctant athlete blissful reprieve. Wearing headphones isn’t a victimless crime particularly in races that either have more than one loop or have the slowest half-marathoners finish with the fastest marathoners. In races like the Ottawa Arboretum 10K, the Mississauga Marathon and in past years, the Toronto Marathon, leaders in the final miles have been forced to pass oblivious stragglers. There are few things as demoralizing as running down the final miles of the marathon having to dodge unaware runners free-floating in unpredictable patterns like some real life version of Asteroids. If you feel that you must have music to motivate you to run, then maybe running isn’t your sport.

3. Rigorously enforce the corral system at large races. If you are a five-hour marathoner, consider temporarily suspending the magical thinking that would impel you to step in with the three-hour guys. Today is not going to be your 2:30 breakthrough moment regardless of how inspiring you find the crowds on race day. Corrals exist so that everyone gets a fair shot at racing. Elbowing your way to the front, sprinting out of the gates and then walking after 150 meters may be acceptable, though lamentable, in elementary school cross-country meets. However, as an adult, this kind of behaviour is as detrimental to the race as it is objectionable.

4. Minimize the cheese. In other words, simplify the sport and return to the basics. The marathon is a race. There is beauty in the simplicity of this statement. Attempts over the last 30 years to turn the marathon into an “event” have transformed an ancient contest of speed and endurance into a parody. This is disingenuous. The world does not need another rock and roll marathon. Nor does it need more loot bags filled meaningless objects.

5. Finally, reward and celebrate the winners particularly when they are Canadian. One would think that collectively our culture must be fatigued by the constant celebration of average achievement. This inclination, unfortunately, does not seem to be in any danger of abating. Finishing a 5K or a marathon is an achievement particularly if a goal has been met. However these kinds of goals should be considered deeply personal and relevant only to people who have a vested interest in your continued well being. Completing a race or even hitting a personal record should be considered in much the same way that a hat trick in beer league hockey might be celebrated and acknowledged; great but not newsworthy beyond a select few. Writing about a slow 10K experience in the Life section of a national newspaper while ignoring the Canadian who won the race is silly and irresponsible.

Over these last several months my blog has looked at a number of different issues ranging from the challenges that Canadian athletes face in their dealings with Athletics Canada to Dave Scott-Thomas’s quest to build a world-class track in Guelph, Ont. I’m taking a break until the fall. Thank you to all who read my work, debated my points, and held me to account.

Rory Gilfillan