Jeff Benjamin wants to know when the next sport changing moment will happen. He hopes it comes in 2020.
Waiting For The Next “Frank Shorter Moment” In The New Decade of 2020 – by Jeff Benjamin- 12/28
In the 1972 Olympics, Frank Shorter’s Gold medal performance led to a transformational change in the Sport. While in prior years legends such as Jim Ryun, Wilma Rudolph and Steve Prefontaine among others appeared in the American sports mainstream, Shorter’s performance initiated a “Boom” for running that also crossed over into Track & Field as well as to the mainstream masses.
When one also throws in the actions of Fred Lebow, Tommy Leonard, Bill Rodgers and (Yes!) Bruce Jenner, the Sport’s trajectory and popularity by the end of the 70’s (Which included Sports Illustrated, AM radio alongside 8-10 television channels where 3 of them might lead to a struggle with one’s antenna for good reception!) reached great heights, and it looked like more was to come.
I am 54 years old and my generation came in unbeknownst to us at the tail end of the original “Running Boom” – the early 1980’s. While the “Boom” still looked strong, there was no “Frank Shorter Moment”, only the anectdotes and echoes from the generation of runners and fans before. One could also make the point that the original “Boom” came to an end just after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic. (In a sad ironic twist, another progenitor, Jim Fixx, whose books on running were international bestsellers, died of a heart attack while running in 1984.)
By 1988, the high quality and depth of American Running and T&F athletes had started to get “watered down”. Most importantly, the print and television media just didn’t seem to hook onto a Shorter or Bill Rodgers or an event like in the decade before.
One could theorize that, during the mid 1980’s, that the huge rise of corporations along with the expansion of television from a few channels to hundreds and thousand of new channels might have led to a downside. Less emphasis in American school systems on physical fitness programs and the explosion of processed foods and computers might have been contributing factors. The March of the John Bingham’s “Penguins” influenced the Sport in a different facet as well, that’s for sure. The PED drug issue certainly hasn’t helped either, yet, throughout it all diehard fans still have hung on, albeit with dwindling numbers.
Yet, it’s not for lack of trying on the athlete’s side. There have been absolutely great and stellar American performances since 1980 which definitely sent temporary shockwaves throughout the Sport nationally and internationally but which incredulously and sadly have not brought about a new ignited “Boom” of significant magnitude to change the landscape.
To name a few –
Joan Benoit’s Gold Medal Marathon performance at the 1984 Olympics!
The Carl Lewis -Mike Powell world record long jump duel at the Tokyo 1991 World Championships!
Joe Falcon 3:49 Dream Mile Victory in 1990 shown live on ABC!
Alan Webb’s high school 3:53 mile!
Meb Keflezighi not only winning the NYC Marathon but dramatically putting it out there in 2014 at Boston, winning a great victory only 1 year after the tragic bombings.
Jenny Simpson’s 2011 World Championship 1500m Gold!
Matt Centrowitz in Rio, leading and controlling the 2016 Olympic 1500 to become the first American to win an Olympic 1500 Gold since 1908!
Shalene Flanagan, emotionally screaming, “F*ck Yeah” in winning the 2017 NYC Marathon, the first American female victor in 40 years!
Emma Coburn’s great victory over the Africans and the world at the 2017 Championships in the Steeplechase!
Dalilah Muhammad’s 2019
400 Hurdle World Record Dueling VS Sydney McLaughlin, a rivalry which could culminate in 2020 in Tokyo!
If one remembers watching these on TV or seeing them on YouTube in reminiscing, announcers from Marty Liquori, Craig Masback, Larry Rawson on down ALL sounded out the idea that each of these performances could be a watershed moment for our Sport, a “Frank Shorter Moment!”
But it didn’t happen.
Why haven’t these spectacular and drama-filled performances been able to resuscitate the Sport and beyond?
Yes, there have been GREAT accomplishments by Team USA Track over the last 15 years, but not enough to lead to a general resurgence.
Perhaps times, attitudes and generational viewpoints have changed.
There’s also a severe disconnect at work as well going on 3 decades, as many youth, high school and collegiate tracksters who are present at meets like Millrose and the Penn Relays and see the Greats never seem to be in attendance as they go into the 20-40 years age groups, a trend also seen in road race participation as well. They seem to just “Shuffle off the Running/Track Coil.”
A Flashback to 1992 – I’m speaking at the New Orleans Olympic Trials with a top NIKE Running executive at the time …the gist of the conversation on the topic of promoting the Sport came along lines like this….
“The landscape has changed…The “Running NIKE crew” has had to fight the basketball crew alongside cross-trainers, walkers who all want a piece of the action and the business people will always go to where the business is.”
Another Flashback to a similar conversation in 2015 with another former NIKE, Adidas and Brooks exec who’s now retired…
“TV is constantly changing…people have to remember that television is the entertainment business…you gotta give the public what they want…the time of young people sitting to watch a complete 9-inning baseball game or a 4 hour track meet is coming to an end…the attention span is simply not there…just look at what the Millrose Games people did in streamlining their meet…It’s a numbers game.”
Baseball’s changes have raised the ire of the Greats of the last century, notably Cooperstown Hall of Famer “Goose Gossage”, which you can feel free to google yourself. But MLB feels they have no choice in attempting to speed up the games for the younger fans to be included.
On the world stage, Seb Coe feels the same way.
Back in 2016 the newly-elected Chief of the IAAF appeared on NBC during the Olympics, hinting in an interview with Masback of the need to make the Sport more inclusive of younger viewers.
Now Coe, whose IAAF is now known as “World Athletics”, is leading a wave of changes for the Sport, which have been based on research and been interpreted as bumpy and controversial to say the least.
The streamlining of meets (as some events are now going to be on a second tier level), a smaller time length television window of viewing, soliciting new sponsors, and trying to include the younger generations as well as boost sagging attendance at track meets throughout the world are all great challenges facing Coe, who is not only an immortal World Record and Olympic Legend, but also a fanatical Running/Track & Field fan as well. Making these decisions are not easy for him either and that’s for sure, as he has to balance the passion of the Sport with the harsh realities of economics. Tough times call for tough decisions.
Perhaps Christian Taylor’s calls for an Athletics Union can help too. Perhaps there is/are sponsors out there willing to do a 1-night 1-event gala to garner attention. One can think of Vin Lanana’s Tracktown USA series a few years ago where, at Randall’s Island’s Icahn stadium in NYC, a 5K road race was then accompanied by a world-class track meet. Many of the 5K runners & walkers in the stands had never seen a live world-class track meet before!
What about last year’s London “Night of the 10,000 PB’s (Personal Bests) track meet, which was highly successful and well-attended?
Who knows what will work? But World Athletics has to try something!
Coe has also stated that these are all changes which, through trial and error, will be constantly evaluated and tinkered with, just like MLB.
The fact of the matter is that the Sport already has me locked in for life. I also feel I’m speaking for many of my brethren who are in their 50’s and over. Some of these fans include Olympic and World Record Champions from the “Boom” era, who lament how the Sport has changed, especially in the 21st century.
BUT, just like Major League Baseball, World Athletics is not focusing on us – they already have us! Rather it’s the millennials and 20-30 somethings who are being targeted, and rightly so. Having Seb Coe lead the way will he viewed by some as polarizing, but I believe everyone agrees that Revolutionary methods must be put into play to move the Sport along.
In the meantime, I’ll always treasure those great moments as gifts from Falcon, Webb, Benoit, Lewis, Powell, Meb, Emma, Shalene, Muhammad, McLaughlin and hope like hell that an inspiring performance (or 2,3, or 10!!) can once again transcend the die-hards of our Sport and break through into the American & World mainstream creating great electricity and attention, just like that Yale graduate’s performance on the streets of Munich almost 5 decades ago, which I’ve only heard about.