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Shorter_Frank1-VaBeach12.jpgFrank Shorter, photo by PhotoRun.net

Marathon Legend Brings Cerebral View To Sport

Without question, Frank Shorter takes quiet pride in the gold and silver Olympic marathon medals he captured in the '70's. Quite frankly, they serve as symbols of all of his distance running accomplishments which were the product of a thoughtfully-assembled and thoroughly-executed training approach he brought to the sport of marathoning and track & field. But the man who ignited the 1970's "Running Boom" - an athletic and cultural phenomenon that continues to reverberate decades later - also appreciates that these athletic accomplishments have also provided him with the platform and the credibility to remain relevant and influential in the sport that has meant so much to him.

Frank Shorter - a student of the sport not only as a world class competitor but also now as one of its revered elder statesmen - has done his homework and remains informed and outspoken about the critical issues that swirl around track & field, marathoning, and road racing. The covert use of banned performance enhancing drugs remains the centerpiece of Shorter's varied areas of interest in the sport where he once excelled. The former Yale standout is quick to point out the geographic or provincial inequities in the way that nations are addressing drug use oversight - with some countries attacking drug cheating in earnest and others turning a blind eye.

The 24-time national champion notes that the World Anti-Doping Agency represents the Athenian solution: here as a singular world body ensuring that drug testing is thorough and uniform in every corner of the globe. Shorter underscores the pushback by several rogue nations, many of whom are riding the wave of illicit athletic success. "The individual federations and countries don't want to do that in the same way. Because they view an actual attempt to solve the [drug] problem to not be in their best interest," states Shorter in neatly outlining the problem.

He knows a solution. "Tomorrow the IOC could say, 'If you don't go on an independent testing program that is audited by an outside entity that answers to us and we form together, you can't be in the Olympics. Very simple. They could do it tomorrow."

So why doesn't the IOC do just that? "Because they've never wanted to - because of the television revenue," Shorter explains. "Unfortunately, it also gets to the point where it is going to reduce the level of performance. If you were to do that, you could very likely have an Olympics where you didn't have one Olympic or world record set in any endurance or strength sport." Shorter remains undaunted in his passion to help clean up the sport.

"You keep plugging away," he suggests. "USADA [the United States Anti-Doping Agency] is the best model today and they would welcome any input as to how to get better. The argument advanced by some is that any entity funded by the U.S. government has to be doing something shady in order to be able to do it. Unfortunately, I think USADA suffers from that. There's no one in Washington lobbying for U.S. Anti-Doping. So to try and argue that congressional oversight doesn't mean anything [is wrong-headed]."

Shorter - who was victorious against world class fields in 4 consecutive Fukuoka Marathons in the early '70's - is heartened about the prospects of more effective drug monitoring in wake of the election of Sebastian Coe as the new head of the IAAF. "If you really want to solve the problem, the model is there," states Shorter matter-of-factly in referencing the USADA operational framework. He would welcome a working summit among Coe, himself, and USADA CEO Travis Tygart. "It takes a phone call. In a way, no matter what Sebastian Coe thinks, if you can get it to the point where he has no choice but to do the right thing, then he'll do the right thing."

At the time of Shorter's transformational Munich marathon victory, marathoning in the U.S. was on the fringes of sport as the nearly-private outpost of scrawny, middle-aged white guys. The 70's Running Boom changed all that. And road racing in general and marathoning in particular is now a much expanded, bigger tent. "That's the whole point," states Shorter. "I got into the marathon in a way because the people had this elitist attitude about the marathon. I didn't like the exclusive aspect of it. Kenny Moore was the first marathoner I knew who didn't have this elitist view that you had to be someone special doing something extraordinary and that it takes incredible training and very few people can do it," he explains. "There is nothing mystical about this. You can do it. The whole point is over the years what happened was endurance running - particularly the marathon - became demystified, that it wasn't something that required special effort. And if you trained properly, you learned that most of the running you did is not at extraordinary effort." The Sullivan Award winner cites yet another reason for the still-spreading growth of domestic running. "We also found out there were side benefits to the training other than simply being able to run in races. I think that is why some of the distance running stars came through the university system. We were using it for stress relief from academics and we turned out to be good at it."

"And there is a certain social aspect to running as well as purely sports," adds the Olympic marathon dual medalist identifying the role social interaction has played in running's popularity. "In the 90's and the emergence of the big city marathons and other road races - Bix; Falmouth; Peachtree - you started to have these road races where the charity aspect and fund-raising element emerged," notes Shorter who has both Peachtree and Falmouth titles to his credit. "And certain people who initially dabbled with running for the fund-raising aspect often discovered that they like running. And that also coincides with the time when women in these races started to gain in large numbers."

During Shorter's heyday in the 70's when he was joined by likes of Bill Rodgers, Moore, Don Kardong, Tony Sandoval, and other high-performance Americans, U.S. marathoners clustered near the top of the world's best. With a few notable exceptions, today's American marathoners are generally absent from the top global road racing and distance event rankings. "I think what happened after 1976 - when the East Germans showed that the paradigm had shifted and that you were more likely to be on drugs when competing on the elite level than not, combined with the fact that the trust fund concept opened up all amateur sport to prize money - is that all the Kenyans started to get interested," states Shorter. "It was truly the financial gain. To my way of thinking, it was like the way some sports in this country are a way out of the ghetto and out of poverty: in Kenya, running was the way out of poverty." Again, Shorter notes that drugs are likely to have fueled this transformation. "At that time drugs were starting to come into the sport. There were observable differences in the level of commitment that countries brought to drug testing. There were some countries truly committed to testing. And there were other countries where it was hard to be committed to testing because you were probably also on the take. That's the reality. In the 70's - and it really had its effect in the 80's - people started to get discouraged because they knew they couldn't be certain that most of the people they were competing against were not on drugs. And it took until after the independent agencies came in - that's been 15 years now - and it's still barely starting to emerge from that. If we don't work to have other countries employ testing at the same level, we will continue to be behind. It is no more complicated than that."

Frank Shorter - who will celebrate his 68th birthday later this month - is candid when asked about how he hopes to be remembered in the sport. "I would like to remembered as someone who carried on trying to continue to have goals within the sport - that went from trying to do as well as I could and find out how well I could do to someone who took that same sort of goal-setting into the giving-back phase of my involvement in the sport." Pausing for a moment, America's greatest Olympic marathoner offers an insight into his racing credo. "I never really approached finishing first as winning," reveals Shorter. "To me, it was to find out just how well I could do. The willingness to find out is what's important - and to not be afraid to find out. And if you truly feel that you have given everything you have, you should be happy with the results," states Shorter in outlining his own liberating competitive philosophy which places more emphasis upon performing at the peak of one's capability than upon defeating fellow competitors. "I was just fortunate enough that the results were good - and timed well," he adds with a smile. "I think for whatever reason I somehow had the ability to be ready at the right time. I knew how to peak. And I'm not really sure where that came from. And I'm not really sure how it evolved. But I think it had a lot to do with the coaching I got from Giegengack at Yale," explains Shorter in alluding to his collegiate coach and head of the 1964 U.S. Olympic track & field team Bob Giegengack, an important Shorter mentor. "He brought an academic approach that appealed to me: that you do build over a semester or a year to an end point, to a kind of "exam." The whole point was to be ready on "exam day" - and to be as ready as you could. Because that's when it really mattered." Of course, not everyone can consistently perform at their best on racing's "exam day." History will remember that Frank Shorter always did.

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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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