USA men’s marathoners might need a different approach

Frank Shorter (left) believes USA men's marathoners need a new approach to achieve success.

For a country with such a proud history in track and field, the United States sure hasn’t done well when it comes to the Olympic men’s marathon.

Americans have garnered just four medals since 1924 and, going back to the sport’s inception in 1896, just one honor of the gold variety.

What gives? We’ve certainly had tremendous distance runners over the years but when it comes time to compete in the five-ring 26.2-miler, we almost never fail to fail.

Frank Shorter, who won that solitary gold at Munich in 1972 and followed it up with a silver at Montreal in 1976, comes from a time when there went big shoe contracts or looming sports agents.

The situation was far less complicated. The Yanks ran for pride, for the love of competition and not so much to secure their financial future.

Shorter stopped by Bucks County last weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that Munich triumph with about 300 runners in the “Chasing the Unicorn and Alternate Half-Marathon.’’

During an interview on Sunday morning at Washington Crossing Historic Park, Shorter talked about why – with the exception of Galen Rupp’s bronze medal in 2016 at Rio/Brazil and Meb Keflezighi’s silver at Athens in 2004 — no other American has finished on the podium since 1976.

“After Munich and Montreal, there were running enclaves around the country,’’ Shorter explained. “You had the Greater Boston Track Club, the Florida Track Club and the Oregon Track Club. There was a certain community there that wasn’t influenced by prize money and agents.

“I was part of the reason prize money came around because it was something I felt needed to happen. But I think I underestimated the impact on the community amongst the runners in the enclaves. It mitigated it; it worked against that sort of real relationship that you develop through training and racing.’’

This current dilemma is not just limited to the Olympics either. Right here on our own soil, foreign runners from Africa and Europe have dominated the Boston, New York City and Chicago marathons for decades.

Shorter suggests a return to what best be described as group training. When he trained with fellow Olympians at Florida in the early ‘70s, the runners brought the best out in each other.

Come to think of it, that’s why a lot of competitors coming out of European and African training groups have done so well.

“Basically you train together because everyone gets better,’’ Shorter said, “than they would by themselves. Then when you race you try to beat each other’s brains out. Then you go back to training.’’

But there are obstacles.

“I think the shoe companies and the agents changed that,’’ Shorter said. “I think that’s a big part of it (USA’s lack of success).’’

There’s also another factor lurking in the shadows.

“I’m always careful not to dwell too much on the drug situation,’’ said Shorter, who many believe should have received the gold in Montreal because the first man across the finish line, East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski, was strongly suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. “But the Russian drug situation over the past few years is pretty obvious. The drug enforcement in various countries is not equal.

“I think that played a major role not only physiologically but also mentally.’’

Shorter said in his time he and fellow elite runners would race a lot and integrate that into their training. Such is not the case anymore.

“There wasn’t this pressure to try to earn as much money as you could,’’ he said. “When you do that, you’re sort of learning how to lose because you’re not peaking for every race.

“Whereas when there’s money and an agent and a shoe contract, there’s always this pressure to be performing at your highest level. I don’t think that’s the best way to do it.’’

Rupp, now 36, was the top American finisher at this summer’s marathon in the World Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. He placed 19th and when someone that age is your top finisher, it says something about the state of your program.


“I think U.S. Track and Field. . .I just don’t think there’s much dialogue between the shoe companies and everyone else,’’ Shorter said. “Unfortunately, we’re also in an era where resources in terms of sponsoring running clubs matter.

“Because it’s become an industry and a business and you can’t have a federation try to tell a business how to operate as a business.’’

Ultimately, the sport’s high-ups have to consider different approaches.

“There are going to be several people thinking outside the box,’’ Shorter predicted. “But you can’t think inside the box. You have to create an incentive on both sides. That’s what we did with the trust fund concept (back in the ‘70s) when we opened up the sport to prize money.

“Somebody has to come up with something like that.’’


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About Wayne Fish 2152 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.