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Running’s Messy Journey From Amateurism, To “Shamateurism”, To Open Racing

By many measures, virtually all forms of running – road racing, track & field, cross country, ultra running, etc. – are experiencing a sort of encore renaissance. Last year, the USA Olympic Team captured 29 track & field medals at the London Olympics. American men and women – recent statistics show – are increasingly turning to running – and often to racing – in a renewed effort to elevate fitness and life quality. And the running sports of cross country and track & field – to the surprise of many – boast the most U.S. high school participants of any sport. Not since the heady boom days of the 70’s has the sport of running witnessed such elite success while – at the same time – evidenced such broad-based participation.

But for distance running in America, a thorny challenge remains: the further enhancement of the country’s framework for elite athlete development. Few would dispute the notion that the proper development of long-distance runners requires – among other things – a process of maturation that recognizes that most elite athletes reach their performance peak in their later 20’s or even early- to mid-30’s. Remember: Carlos Lopes won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37, only to establish a new marathon world record the following year – at age 38. In our country, we have a solid – albeit not spectacular – framework for broad-based participation offered primarily by structured high school and college athletic programs. But once a budding distance runner’s interest is piqued, talent is revealed, and potential is cultivated in our scholastically-based sports system, the athlete graduates and the American “framework” for development comes to an abrupt end. Departure from college often leaves the promising distance runner, perhaps at age 22 and short of reaching full athletic potential, to soldier on alone – unaided by the type of cultural support available to similar foreign-born distance-running hopefuls.

How then does the United States promote the emergence of an expanded environment of assistance which will help strengthen, increase, and basically improve the opportunities for the full development of its elite distance running athletes?

To be able to effectively address that challenge, it is important to understand how the participation in and governance of running has evolved during the recent decades.

Sixty years ago, the world was a different place and the development of domestic distance talent was hardly an issue. European “athletics” was still in a post-war malaise and African nations had not yet become a pivotal sports participant on the world stage. The romantic and Athenian notion of amateurism prevailed. For the most part, international amateur athletes competed on a level playing field – with no global sector noticeably advantaged by a superior method of elite athlete development.

But then things changed. Communist bloc nations quietly assembled internal programs of state support for their athletes. Awakening African nations began to discover that legions of their countrymen possessed vast distance running potential. They saw the sport as a pathway to lift families and villages to a better quality of life.

By the early 1970’s, American distance runners, not unfamiliar with making sacrifices, were finding it increasingly difficult to pursue a focused elite training regimen and – at the same time – maintain even a minimalist lifestyle. Don Kardong, 1976 American Olympian and 4th place finisher in the Montreal Olympic marathon, remembers the sacrifices that he and others were compelled to make as they pursued their dreams of competing in the 1976 Games. “I received no third party assistance,” notes Kardong. “I lived very cheaply, renting a place with 4 other guys. I had a little bit of savings and I did a few odd jobs. But basically I was living incredibly cheaply and focusing everything on my running.”

But during that time, emerging cracks began to threaten the Olympic veneer of amateurism, as American athletes discovered a covert method of sustaining their pursuit. “There was modest appearance money which was discretely distributed to the better athletes. That was technically illegal, but was pretty widespread,” explains Kardong. “But I can’t say that I knew anybody who would have said in those days, ‘I am able to support myself through my running.’”

As the 70’s progressed, the first 5-borrough running of the New York City Marathon in 1976 heralded the emergence of mass urban marathon racing. And – just like that – the spark to distance running that was earlier provided by Frank Shorter’s televised 1972 Olympic marathon victory would soon become a booming bonfire. Before long, money began to flow into the sport. And the pervasive practice of under-the-table appearance fees to elite runners – or “shamateurism” – was proving unwieldy and outdated. It was time to bring running – both road racing and track & field – out of the shadows and into the sunlight.

American distance running began to change more quickly – often in halting and clumsy lurches. The Association of Road Racing Athletes – founded in 1979 – was a progressive and effective voice for America’s elite athletes who wanted the shamateurism charade replaced with an above-board, transparent system of open racing and prize money. “We believed that the money should be based upon how you ran and not who you were,” explains Jon Sinclair, current coach and now-retired elite 1980’s distance runner often recognized as the most decorated road racer of his era.

The early 80’s represented a time of historic change in American distance running. Corporate players – observing a new and emerging market opportunity – continued to sift money into the sport. Sensing the emerging economic reality, elite athletes sought valiantly to establish and preserve their rights to compensation. Governing bodies – fearing the loss of influence – often responded impulsively, threatening loss of eligibility not only to runners taking money, but also to innocent event participants who were “contaminated” by participating in the same event with such elite “violators.” It was a messy time as both athletes and oversight organizations struggled to find new guidelines for a sport that was redefining itself.

While the athletes and selected governing bodies of the sport engaged in exchanges that were often bumpy and downright contentious, the Road Runners Club of America was clarifying its own position in support of the athletes. At its 1980 annual meeting, the RRCA adopted a resolution that announced it “supports the right of road runners to earn a living capitalizing on their fame and recognizes the reality of open running, professional versus amateur.”

Solidarity among the elite runners ultimately proved to be the key to effecting change. The historic showdown race at the 1981 Cascade Run-Off was the turning point as the unified athletes and The Athletic Congress and the International Amateur Athletic Federation found common ground that saved face for the governing bodies yet assured the athletes’ right to compensation. The 11th-hour resolution adopted a trust fund concept that allowed runners to receive and control funds earned in conjunction with road racing and track & field appearances and performances. Now since abandoned, the trust fund concept proved to be a pivotal first step toward full economic independence for running and track & field athletes. “Don Kardong, Creigh Kelley, Greg Meyer, Bill Rodgers, Herb Lindsay, Anne Audain and I – and others like us – we created the professional sport,” Sinclair reflects. “When we started competing in the late 70’s on the roads, there was no prize money. It was all under the table – “shamateurism.” We helped to create that professional sport by taking that money over the table, by putting prize money on the table. It eventually led to the IAAF ultimately to authorize TAC accounts and to allow professionals in all sports to compete in the Olympics.”

And it also proved to be a liberating step that resonated beyond running to unshackle other sports as well – even opening the door for professional athletes to compete in the Olympic Games. Alluding the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” – a squad composed primarily of professional basketball players – Sinclair notes, “Those guys never would have played in the Olympics had it not been for road racing and the 1981 Cascade Run-Off showdown.”

If there is a difficult approach that can be chosen to accomplish a worthy objective, it seems as if road racing and track & field will invariably – and perhaps inevitably – find and select the hard way to get it done. This somewhat cynical and slightly bemused condemnation might be leveled at the choppy and unruddered manner by which the sport has navigated from the antiquated notion of amateurism to the more realistic and egalitarian approach of open, free-market racing of today. But hindsight is 20/20. Perhaps a fairer assessment of the sport’s much-needed transformation would recognize that all of the twists and turns that accompanied the birthing of an updated and more relevant concept of “athletics” were necessary – albeit sometimes uncomfortable – facets of the this important process of change.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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