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August 28, 2008

Olympic Depression

Given that the Closing Ceremonies wrapped up almost a week ago, it’s somewhat late to write a postmortem on the Olympic Games – but when you have a newspaper column that only appears only a couple of times per month, occasionally the timing gets screwed up like that.

Additionally, in light of all my 100-mile hysteria, I managed to neglect posting anything about the Olympic track and field events that I so passionately promoted in this space just before the Beijing Games got underway. Make no mistake, I was still watching as many races as possible – but unfortunately, the majority of the coverage left me feeling dissatisfied.

Those issues are the topic of this week’s Monterey Herald column, in which my friend Mike and I were more specifically focused on our perspectives as fans of distance running (and then, as is our custom, we got a little bit silly towards the end). Actually, the running contingent wasn’t even the most afflicted fan base at these Games; God help you if you tried (like me) to watch any of the triathlon or open-water swimming events.

Anyway, the column is below – which all likelihood will represent my first and last words on the Beijing Olympics for the foreseeable future.


Running Life 8/28/08 “Olympic Depression”

Runners are used to being misfits — so it will be no surprise to us if we're in the minority with the opinion we're about to offer: namely, that we didn't enjoy watching the Beijing Olympic Games very much. Instead of being impressed by all of that "faster, higher, stronger" stuff, we found ourselves depressed about the competitions that interested us the most.

See, here's the thing about being a distance runner: no matter how old you are, or how fast you are, you get extremely little recognition for your accomplishments. Even when you're among the best in the world, you're doomed to an anonymous, impoverished career. You can even be overshadowed under the bright glare of the Olympic flame.

This wasn't always the case. There was a time not too many Olympiads ago where the 1,500m run was the premiere event of the Games, with the 10K and marathon a close second and third. While we understand the interest in the seemingly huge variety of sports that have attained Olympic status recently, we hate seeing our beloved events kicked to the curb. (In a related story, we're puzzled over NBC's determination to make every person in America a platform diving fan.)

We've always known it was tough to be a competitor in distance running events — what we didn't realize was how difficult it would be just to watch these races at home. Most nights, we waited patiently through synchronized diving and trampoline gymnastics and preliminary BMX heats (called "motos" — See, we were actually paying attention) without any idea when our coveted events might appear.

Unfortunately, TV listings weren't much help to us, either — they'd only list "track and field" without mentioning whether it was the 5K final or the prelims of the women's shot put. Our options were to record and wade through 20 hours of coverage each day, or take our chances that some of the high-profile distance races would be shown in prime time. You already know how that one panned out.

Even when we found our races, the coverage was sadly limited. For example, the women's 10K was televised at 2 a.m. — and even at that late hour, NBC only aired the first four minutes and last four minutes of the race. Consequently, most U.S. viewers missed an incredible performance from Shalane Flanagan, who won a bronze medal in an American record time of 30:22.

It's almost certain that nobody at NBC suspected Flanagan was going to medal, which explains how the coverage got buried in the middle of the night. It also illustrates another sad truth of distance running: if there aren't any Americans competing for medals, you have zero chance of seeing the event on TV. During the women's marathon, American cameras didn't even show the finish of Blake Russell, the only U.S. woman to complete the race, who came in less than one minute behind world-record holder Paula Radcliffe.

However, fans of distance running enjoy these races even if U.S. athletes are not involved. It's like being an American soccer fan who enjoys watching David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. We always cheer for American favorites like Kara Goucher, Ryan Hall, and Dathan Ritzenhein, but we also enjoy the brilliance of Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, Aussie Craig Mottram, Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, and other foreign distance running heroes.

Unfortunately, we realize that these folks will always play second banana to marquee names like Phelps, Nastia, or Walsh and May (all very attractive to look at, by the way — which is no small factor in TV exposure). So it's clear that distance running needs a bit of an image makeover. At the same time, maybe we could infuse a bit of running's old-fashioned sensibility into some of the higher profile sports.

For example, it seems like there's always a controversy about gymnastics scoring. This year, Nastia Liukin lost a gold medal to a competitor with the exact same score. If runners were in charge, we'd alter the events to eliminate any scoring issues. Take the balance beam; instead of 90-second routines that are different for each competitor, we'd set up a row of several parallel beams that are about 50 meters in length, then have the gymnasts race on the beams simultaneously. They'd still be required to do four back flips and two pirouettes and other tricks before they dismount at the other end — but in this case, the fastest gymnast who gets across without falling wins. Controversy solved!

There's no question that swimming is one of the most popular events at the Games, even when Phelps isn't in the pool. Some runners might find it strange that swimming has several races over the same distance using four different strokes. For runners, the object of races is to reward the person who gets from point A to point B the fastest, regardless of what type of stride they use — but maybe this is an area we could tweak to our advantage for next time.

We're thinking that the runners could have competitions at all the standard distances, but include hopping, skipping, and backward running categories in addition to the usual "running forward" technique. They could also have medley events for those who excel in all four disciplines. Throw in a couple of relays (forward-style and medley), and a talented guy like Usain Bolt could definitely win eight or more gold medals.

It's sad that we may someday need to resort to carnival-style stunts in order to attract viewers to what were once the most prestigious events in the Olympics. What we really need is a stunningly beautiful, overwhelmingly dominant, American-born runner who can enter 10 different events as the odds-on favorite — but sadly, that wish may go ungranted for quite a while.

In the meantime, we'll continue to hunt around the TV dial in the dead of night, resigned to our pitiful fate as frustrated fans of long distance running.


Anne 8/29/08, 5:17 AM  

Someone told me last night that there were broadcast disputes that prevented us from seeing more track and field events. It might explain some of the dearth in coverage. I will say that I watched both the men's and women's triathlons LIVE and in their entirety on the Web. It was kinda neat to watch a long race unfold without the voice over commentary (they stream thoughtful contributions on a live commentary board instead) AND they stick with the coverage until the last athlete finishes. It actually made racewalking and marathon swimming look exciting. Plus, if you missed it live, you could go back for the "encore." I discovered this after the second day of beach volleyball during the primest of primetime coverage.

robtherunner 8/29/08, 3:34 PM  

I am in complete agreement with your assessment of the distance coverage. I think some of our women distance runners are pretty hot. Maybe they're just not marketed well enough.

David 8/29/08, 5:59 PM  

You would think the TV sales department would have recognized a fairly significant demographic in long distance/marathon runners/fans. I believe I read in the New Yorker that the median annual household income of New York City Marathon entrants was $130,000. I know Katie Holmes and Lance Armstrong might run it up a little bit but there were 45,000 runners. I, for one, pulled from the lower side of the median.

David Ray 8/29/08, 7:56 PM  

Anne is correct on the web coverage. I also watched events on-line and enjoyed the no-commentator, no-commercial viewing. In fact, you can still go to the NBC site and watch most of the events.

Also, today I watched the Golden League meet as it was streamed live from Zurich on the trackshark.com site. Again, no commercials and some great track & field. That event is also still available online. Very cool.

triguyjt 8/30/08, 8:49 AM  

I love your solution on the duel on the balance beams...hilarious..

swimming might be popular due to the camera angles and rolling perspective and underwater stuff...of course the fit athletes attract viewers of both sexes...

I agree on the lack of love for distance racing...that sucked..
did enjoy watching the marathons....

triguyjt 8/30/08, 8:50 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
mweston 8/31/08, 9:19 PM  

I was in Japan and don't speak Japanese, but I did see the women's 10K without staying up until the wee hours. I don't recall it being edited, but I may be wrong about that. And it was great to see Flanagan do so well.

The men's marathon was shown complete, and on a morning that was rainy so I was stuck inside anyway. They also showed a surprisingly long segment on the 50K race walk.

Note that we only got two channels in the countryside cabin we were staying in (on Lake Nojiri, relatively near where the Nagano Winter Olympics were held), so getting anything was a pleasant surprise.

Makita 9/1/08, 11:51 PM  

I, too, was disappointed in the TV and newsprint coverage of running events. Thank goodness for the internet.

Speed Racer 9/2/08, 12:45 PM  

And who the hell wants to watch so much volleyball?! Did they even televise the triathlon? I tivoed every Olympic event aired, and didn't see it. Yet I could watch every single qualifying heat of the women's 200m hurtles where our girls failed miserably. (I have not done my fact checking, but if this is not true of the 200m hurtles pick another event out of a hat and it will be true).

Taylor Phinney was expected to be sweeping up the medals on the cycling track too. How come we didn't see him?

I was VERY disappointed. Thank you for so eloquently voicing all of our woes.

Speed Racer 9/2/08, 12:46 PM  

And who the hell wants to watch so much volleyball?! Did they even televise the triathlon? I tivoed every Olympic event aired, and didn't see it. Yet I could watch every single qualifying heat of the women's 200m hurtles where our girls failed miserably. (I have not done my fact checking, but if this is not true of the 200m hurtles pick another event out of a hat and it will be true).

Taylor Phinney was expected to be sweeping up the medals on the cycling track too. How come we didn't see him?

I was VERY disappointed. Thank you for so eloquently voicing all of our woes.

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