It is a measure of how much long distance running has jogged its way into public consciousness over recent decades that the BBC Radio 4 national news on Saturday morning culminated – admittedly in a spot reserved for amusing items – with news that the organisers of the south coast of England race, the Brighton Half-Marathon had apologised, having discovered that the course has been 500 feet (c150m) short for the last three years. And no, it wasn’t an April Fools’ joke.
That makes the race more like the Brighton 21k. I think they should go a step further and make it the Brighton 20k, but still call it a half-marathon. That could lead the way to reducing the marathon to a more sensible 40k, and the clowns currently planning to cheat their way to a sub-two hour marathon could get their wish straightaway, and dozens of East Africans (and maybe even a Yank or a Brit or two) could do the trick.
Which brings me inevitably and belatedly to the World Cross Country Championships, whose latest edition took place in Kampala, Uganda last Sunday. The World Cross used to be the GREATEST RACE ON EARTH (yes!), and I wouldn’t have missed it for the… well, for the world. But that was a long time ago, when it used to happen every year; and 1500 metres runners could turn up, and make a reasonable attempt to place highly.
I first attended the ‘International’ in Barry, Wales back in 1967, half a dozen years before the World Champs was inaugurated. Like many other clubs from the English midlands (and doubtless elsewhere in the UK) our club hired a coach/bus and we drove to south Wales, to watch Doris Brown of the USA win the women’s race by half a minute, and my old pal Tim Johnston finish second to the reigning Olympic steeple champion Gaston Roelants of Belgium. Roelents won again on the next occasion I watched in person, in Cambridge in 1972. That was the last year for the ‘International’ and the World Champs made its debut the following year, in Waregem, Belgium, where Pekka Paivarinta of Finland won the senior men and Paula Pigni of Italy won the women’s race.
As you can tell from the above names – and plenty more, such as Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen, Maricica Puica, Zola Budd, Lynn Jennings; Carlos Lopes, John Treacy, and Craig Virgin, the First World, to use a shorthand term, was still in charge back in those days. Indeed, in 1975, Ian Stewart of Scotland managed to win the unlikely double of the European indoor 3000 metres and the World Cross within a couple of weeks.
I was also in Madrid in 1981, at the beginning of my reporting career, when the World Cross turned on its axis, if not its head. Thinking they were coming into the finishing straight after four laps, the six Ethiopians at the head of the field started their sprint for the line. The only problem was that it was a five-lap race. Double Olympic distance champ from the previous year in Moscow, the recently deceased Miruts Yifter shook his fist in rage, presumably at the innumerate Ethiopian team managers. But he and his colleagues duly started running again, in pursuit of Virgin, Fernando Mamede of Portugal and Julian Goater of England, who had swept past into the lead. Virgin won from a resurgent Mohammed Kedir (who won the following year), with Mamede third, and Yifter finished an enraged fifteenth.
But Ethiopa still won the team race and, with questionable taste, the French sports daily, L’Equipe headlined a victory for the ‘Little Green Men’. This was a reference to the colour of their running outfit; but the significance was these guys might as well have been from another planet. And so the extra-terrestrial bombardment continued. Ethiopia won for the next four years; then Kenya took over, and has won the lions’ share of the titles, with Ethiopia, since then, ie for the last 30 years. Led by luminaries like Kenenisa Bekele and Paul Tergat, abetted by a few other African interlopers – Khalid Skah, Mohammed Mourit, Zersenay Tadesse – Kenyans and Ethiopians have won the vast majority of the individual titles too. Ditto the senior women, and junior men and women too.
In an attempt to defray the onslaught of East Africans, the IAAF has tried several modifications; the introduction of a short race in 1998, with the initial women’s race (and the long race) won by Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan, with one or two other victories – Paula Radcliffe, Benita Johnson – for non-Africans. But Bekele made nonsense of the initiative in the senior men by winning five successive short and long races on the same weekend.
A reduction in team numbers/counters is still in place, without changing much by way of results; and the short races have been jettisoned. And with the sort of supportive gesture for the team manager by a Premier League football club owner, which leads inevitably to the sack a few days/weeks later, the IAAF decreed that the World Cross became a biennial event in 2011. After the farrago of the ‘mixed’ track series in Australia earlier this year, a mixed relay was added to the Kampala timetable. The Kenyans dominated that as well as taking all six top places in the women’s race; and once again sharing the honours overall with the Ethiopians.
The question is what next? Can the race be revived; can it be made more competitive?
I was bemused to discover – via my pal Franco Fava, once a competitor in the event, now probably the man with the most attendances in history – that forty more Kenyans competed in Kampala…. for other countries!!
I should remind you at this point that the IAAF has put a temporary stop to ‘transfers’ like this. But why? It is a professional sport after all. The time-honoured tactic of the transfer system has long existed in athletics. So, if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em in.
That’s one way forward. And though it might seem injudicious in this era of Donald Trump (speaking of clowns, as I was above) to mention that the first four Americans in the men’s race were Kenyan immigrants (pace Obama), more credit goes to US college coaches, for rediscovering the necessity for volume preparation, ie lots of miles/kilometres. As I have pointed out before, the USA had a full complement of runners, men and women, in every event from 800 metres to the marathon in the last two Olympic Games; and won more medals than any other first world country in those events. By the same token, the USA squad in Kampala acquitted itself better than any other non-African team.
But there is something else. To those of us who appreciate great running, it doesn’t matter who wins. The domination of East Africans, with all the advantages of having been born and nurtured at altitude has been widely discussed elsewhere. Already, almost 20 years ago, when I made Race For Kenya* – an attempt to explain East African success – the Kenyan men occupied almost half of the top 100 places from 800 metres to the marathon every year. That Kenyan women did not do the same had more to do with women’s perceived roles in a Third World society. That has changed, evidence of which is the top six places in the Kampala women’s race last week.
The rise of the East Africans has been paralleled by the precipitous decline in first world performances. For example, in the mid-1980s, there were a dozen British men running sub-28mins for 10,000 metres on the track. The only Brit who can reliably do that now is Mo Farah, whose Olympic double double obscures the fact that he only has (very) occasional sub-28min company – in the last four or five years, Chris Thompson, Andy Vernon and Ross Millington; although clearly Callum Hawkins can do substantially under 28mins when he has a serious attempt.
But the further problem on the international scene is that there is a public perception that the East Africans, men and women are interchangeable; it is the same in the marathon, with a succession of seemingly anonymous Kenyans and Ethiopians winning a succession of major races. As I wrote here, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, last year, it is bigger news nowadays to headline a marathon report with Kenyan Doesn’t Win!
Geoffrey Kamworor, who successfully defended his men’s title in Kampala is the best case in point. Kamworor is one of the most versatile distance runners in history; winner of both junior and senior world cross titles; twice winner of the world half-marathon title, and a world championship 10,000 metres silver medallist. He shares this successful track/road/country distinction with all-time greats like Paul Tergat and Paula Radcliffe. Further, he has finished highly in two top marathons (Berlin and New York). I may be wrong but I have never seen a lengthy profile of Kamworor outside the industry databases or his management website. But the latter tells me that he was the subject of a webfilm in 2015, entitled, wait for it…. The Unknown Runner**.
I have tired over the last 25 years of admonishing the managers of African athletes, telling them they need to ensure their athletes speak English, and to give those athletes media training; in order that they may project their personalities better. We know how good a runner you are, but give us your story! On the latter point, I recall saying much the same thing at a seminar during the IAAF Gala weekend almost a decade ago. Sanya Richards, never one to hide her expansive personality nevertheless came and thanked me afterwards for advice she wished she’d heard as a junior; and Frankie Fredericks who I’d always found to be a gent, if a little too quiet and retiring, came and admitted how stupid he’d been during his career not to pursue publicity more avidly. He’d finally come to recognise, after his retirement, that he was a four-time Olympic silver medallist who’d managed to fly under the radar.
It takes time, but it’s worth the effort. Jos Hermens has told me how he’d stand at Haile Geb’s shoulder at press conferences for years, telling him (in Amharic) to smile, and say something, however little, in English. Fortunately Haile was an extrovert character who learned his lesson well; and had the good fortune of a career long enough for his cheery character to infect everyone around him, international media included. He made himself a personality.
It is up to the IAAF and the managers to do the same for the current crop of world beating athletes to come out of East Africa (or wherever).
Give us the story.