Futile cycle

One underappreciated aspect of the massive amount of pre-race media coverage the Boston Marathon receives every year is that it provides all sorts of substrate for bloggers intent on exposing the poor reasoning of columnists and reporters who may not be intimately familiar with the sport. This is a marked shift from other times of the year, when the same bloggers make highlighting the shoddy analytical skills of various other people their raison d’etre.

When confronted with the otherworldly and uninterrupted dominance of the marathon around the globe by East African runners that took off about 25 years ago, people aren’t satisfied to explain it on its own terms. They also like to contextualize it and find ways to assert that it’s not a new phenomenon and is therefore at least somewhat likely to be finite.

This, folks, is absurd, and is exemplified by a piece in the Boston Herald published on Wednesday. The writer strives to historicize the fact that runners from either Kenya (18 wins) or Ethiopia (3) have placed first in the men’s division in 21 of the last 23 Boston Marathons. (The writer actually focuses only on Kenyans; the addition of the Ethiopians is mine. Italy’s Gelindo Bordin won the race in 1990 and Lee Bong-Ju of South Korea took first in 2001.) He does this by pointing out that other parts of the world have enjoyed their own turns at the top of the Boston heap, asking:

Is the domination by the Kenyans unique?

And answering:

A cursory glance at the history of the 115-year-old Hopkinton-to-Boston footrace would indicate the answer is no. There have been other countries which at various times have shown superiority, albeit not to the extent of the deep Kenyan running machine.

This is not unlike claiming that professional golf is not immune to the ravages of performance-enhancing drugs, albeit not to the extent of the EPO- and steroid-soaked Tour de France cycling machine. None of the other nations that have enjoyed “dominance” of the Boston Marathon have had even one-half the stranglehold on the event that Kenyans now display. But the more striking issue is that the writer of this article and countless other pundits somehow manage to ignore the simple fact that as time passes, the effective reach of the world doesn’t contract, it only expands. Setting aside how much faster the winning times have become as the decades have marched into today, it’s simply an act of willful blindness to pretend that runners from all of the countries now sending elite athletes to Beantown have always been part of the ride, wallowing patiently in mediocrity to take their eventual turn at the top in what these observers portray as an international zero-sum game.

Put differently: African runners simply weren’t competing in significant numbers until the late 1980s. Once they arrived, they signaled emphatically that they were here to stay, and the march of the calendar has only hammered this reality home with increasing force.

I suspect that the subtext of this is jingo-scented optimism of sorts — the supposition that one day the United States might take back what we’re supposed to believe is, like everything else, rightly America’s. But this idea is smashed flat by the excitement this same press corps displays at the mere possibility of an American man standing atop the podium for the first time since Greg Meyer did so in 1983. This excitement is understandable, because for the most part the possibility is somewhere between somewhat likely and remote and perhaps always will be. The fastest-ever U.S.-born man by a half-mile, Ryan Hall, is back this year after placing a creditable 3rd in 2009 and 4th last year. If Hall wins, which he clearly could, it will be a major story the world over. But the idea that this would herald anything akin to a systematic resurgence is as far-fetched as the notion that the Africans might just simply pack up their tents and move on to more challenging sporting endeavors, such as bodybuilding. And it would be remiss to point out that the Boston Marathon, despite its untarnishable luster, isn’t even the premier marathon being staged this weekend — that honor falls to the London Marathon, which will feature six men with sub-2:06:00 times to their credit and 14 women who have cracked 2:24:00.

Only Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston champ (in a time that would not have won the women’s race in 2002) and former editor-in-chief of Runner’s World, contributes a measure of realism to the Herald article:

“So, certainly, there’s been cyclical paths, and, long before I came along, there was almost an intramural clash with Canada,” Burfoot said. “But I don’t see the current trend (with Kenyans) changing. . . . I don’t see how or when it would change.”