The Way I See It

By Pat Bigold

Tuesday, December 3, 1996

America has dearth
of elite marathoners

PEEK at the list of elite runners for Sunday's 24th Honolulu Marathon. You'll notice there are no top American contenders.

In the men's race, six are from Kenya, five are from South Korea, two are from Tanzania, two are from South Africa, one is from Poland and one from Brazil.

Then look at the women's elite race and you'll see Kenya, Russia, the Netherlands, Poland, Japan, Brazil and South Korea in what should be the fastest female field ever assembled for Honolulu.

Americans fell out of contention here as soon as the race became a truly world-class event.

In the more competitive 100th Boston Marathon last April, three-time defending champion Cosmas Ndeti of Kenya was overtaken by - guess who - yet another Kenyan, Moses Tanui. Africa owns the marathon.

In the New York City Marathon, held last month, America hit rock bottom.

There was only one marginally elite American marathoner in the entire field of elite men and women.

No, it isn't that these major races don't like Americans.

It's that Americans are not confident they can compete for prize money with the athletes from other countries.

Frank Shorter, who won a gold medal at the Olympics in Munich in 1972, grumbled yesterday in Waikiki that the last time an American male won a major marathon was 1983.

Shorter just got back to Hawaii from Fukuoka, Japan, where on Sunday he watched South Koreans, Spaniards, Brazilians and Japanese kick butt in a restricted elite race he dominated between 1971 and 1974.

"You know something," he said, "the current U.S. marathon record is 41st on the all-time list."

Sounds like we're in a minor league of our own, doesn't it?

It's gotten so bad that there's talk around the running world of restricting foreign entries in U.S. races.

That's clearly aimed at runners from African nations.

Such runners have won nine of the last 11 Honolulu Marathons (the other two were from South Korea and Italy, respectively).

But restricting these superb athletes from the races is no answer.

A guy with a good idea is Jim Davis, the president and chief executive of New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc.

HE'S offering a $1 million bounty to anyone who can break, the current U.S. men's or women's marathon record in 1997.

The men's record of 2:08:47, set by Bob Kempainen at the 1994 Boston Marathon, looks breakable. But the women's record of 2:21:21, set in the 1985 Chicago Marathon by Joan Benoit Samuelson, might stand longer.

Shorter's all for the bounty.

"It's a shame you have to offer $1 million to make people start thinking right, but my feeling is that, if that's what it takes, OK," he said.

Shorter said Americans are capable of running much faster marathons.

He pointed out that he ran his first marathon only a year before he won his gold medal.

Shorter said that when the ban on prize money was lifted in 1982, U.S. runners began to race too much in an attempt to earn a living at their sport.

ESPN commentator Toni Reavis favors a long-term cash incentive, similar to the plan that got the South Koreans back into the lead packs of major marathons.

He said a $200,000 longterm prize offered in 1986 produced a 2:08:47 in 1992.

Interest in pro distance running might trickle to the school level if a long-term incentive is held out there.

Some kid might be the Arthur who is able to yank Excalibur from the stone that encases the American running spirit.

Pat Bigold has covered sports for daily newspapers
in Hawaii and Massachusetts since 1978.

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