Posted by: Joe English | January 3, 2008

Commentary: Do you know Liu Xiang? Perhaps you should.

I think it is fascinating that many marathon runners – and maybe runners in general – have only a passing knowledge of the runners who are at the top of our sport.

I saw a good example of this at the Rock N Roll Marathon last year, where a sponsor was doing a trivia game about the sport of marathon. You could win a prize if could answer three questions about the sport marathon. Almost no one got the questions right– and these questions were not that hard. But they required some knowledge of the key players in the sport of running and that knowledge just wasn’t there in most people who walked up to the keyboards to take the quiz.

Sure, running is a participant sport and to be a marathon runner doesn’t really require you to follow what’s happening up in the pack ahead of you. You can have an amazing marathon experience, while someone goes out and sets a new course record without it really impacting what you’re doing there that day.

Yet there’s something sort of unusual about this phenomenon. Let’s look at some other truly participant sports, like cycling or golf. Is there any golfer who doesn’t know who Tiger Woods is? Is there any cyclist who doesn’t know who Lance Armstrong is?

But with runners, in this US in particular, most probably would not be able to name to the current world record holder in the marathon (Haile Gebrselassie), the half-marathon world record holder (Sammy Wanjiru), the men’s Olympic Champion (Stefano Baldini), or the men’s and women’s 2007 marathon world champions (Luke Kibet and Catherine N’dereba).

Part of the problem may be cultural. Names like N’derba, Prokopcuka or Grigoryeva don’t exactly roll off the American tongue. I can attest to this as a marathon writer, I spend a lot of time spell checking names. But marathoning is an international sport and the top runners come from a lot of different countries around the world. So that’s just part and parcel of being in a globally popular sport.

Newsweek magazine had a special double-issue about the role of China in the world this past week. In it, they profile Liu Xiang, the Olympic Gold Medalist in the 110M high-hurdles, who is also the world record holder and world champion. Writer Mark Starr points out that, “Today Liu is arguably the most popular man in China and indisputably the most visible. His face is everywhere—on magazine covers, billboards and milk cartons. He cavorts on music videos with the hottest female stars and boasts an A-list of international sponsors, including Nike and Visa.”

That’s a fairly significant statement. A runner is said to be the most popular man in China, the most populous nation on earth, and I wonder how many of us would be able to identify that name.

Take Haile Gebrselassie as another example. He may be the most famous person in Ethiopia, employing hundreds in his personal businesses. And he’s arguably the greatest runner of all time. Yet, would most American marathon runners pick him out of a crowd? I’m not so sure.

Paula Radcliffe, on the other hand, is recognizable. People know Paula. We call her by her first name. But then, it’s an easy name to say, isn’t it.

I find this whole topic fascinating. It’s one of the reasons that I write so much about the racing aspect of marathon running. I think it is important for us to have a connection to the elite side of the sport. It isn’t everything that the sport is about, but it is a wonderful and vibrant part of the sport that I think more people could enjoy.

I’d love to hear what you think about this. Please feel free to comment.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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  1. Joe,
    It is a very interesting topic. I find it refreshing to chat with others who have some knowledge of what goes on at the elite level as well. Unfortunately, in the US there is horrendous coverage of road racing and track & field. It does vary by region and city but overall there is poor coverage of our sport. (The same can be said probably of all Olympic sports.) There is ongoing debates at the highest levels on how to make our sport more “watchable” on TV for instance. We “know” many major sports (baseball, football, basketball) figures in the US because we see them daily (almost) on the TV or in the news. Exposure is the issue. We have millions of runners in the US. Every age is represented. So, I guess to me, it’s not surprising we don’t readily know all these elite runners either by face or by name (no matter how difficult they are for us to pronounce… but once practiced some really do roll off your tongue nicely… but I digress).
    It’s not just foreign names that prove difficult – Khannouchi.Keflezeghi and Abdirahmin aer all American runners… and would we know them if we saw them?
    Coach Dean

  2. Dean,

    I love your last comment. It’s not just a matter of foreign runners with difficult names! For the dislexic writer over here, it certainly isn’t easy. 🙂

    I did an earlier commentary on the issue that you bring up about coverage of sports. I find it interesting to note that the largest running events (Boston and New York for example) are televised – as is the Ironman. The Ironman is interesting because it is quite a popular broadcast, but the Ironman organiztion still has to pay for their own production costs to ensure that the networks will air it.

    I’m glad to see the advent of more Internet broadcasting of these events. Berlin, the US Marathon Trials, even the California International Marathon were all available over the Internet this year. I think we’ll see more of this.

    But at the end of the day, running is MUCH more popular as a major spectator sport in Europe, Africa and Asia than it is here in North America.

    Great to hear from you as always.


  3. Joe,

    This is an excellent topic. I’ve only been running about 3 years but have quickly become a junkie for following all the various elite level players in both road racing and track. To a certain extent i think the problem is that the Americans aren’t dominating the sport. You used the example of Lance in cycling and Tiger in golf. Both are Americans who dominate in their sport. Americans only like to follow a sport if they are winning. Many more runners that I talk to know the names Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar, but they came from a time when Americans were on top. Perhaps one year from now we will be rehashing this dicussion because Hall, Sell, or Ritz will have changed all that. Another perfect example is soccer. Worldwide this is the most popular sport, but are the Americans on top? Have they every been? It continues to struggle here for specatator popularity despite all the soccer leagues our children play in. We only like to watch if we are the winners.


  4. Chris,

    Yes, another interesting side to this. We do seem to focus on sports when we have champions at the top – for example everyone knows the name of a gold medalist American swimmer for a few months after the Olympics, even though most people don’t watch much swimming.

    But still, I look at the sport of triathlon. I think most triathletes recognize Chris McCormack and Michellie Jones (Austrailia), Peter Reid (Canada), Cameron Brown (New Zealand), Natascha Badmann (Switzerland) and Paula Newby-Fraiser (South Africa) – and many others – yet they are all from other countries.

    Indeed, a very interesting topic.


  5. Dear All,

    I think it is because long distance running is in a sense very introverted. Maybe because of the time it takes to train, maybe 15 hours a week if one includes bathing, pre run rituals and stretching. We have to cut off other social events, and then keeping up with the elites is at the back of our mind.

    I live in Japan, where all the major events are live on TV, but the competition means the big names change constantly.


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