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Road Kill

Is the Bolder Boulder a Racist Race?
Everyone but Patsy Ramsey and a couple of blissed-out hippie leftovers up Sunshine Canyon seems to have an opinion on that. As the famous distance race draws near (May 25), organizers feeling pressure from the glare of a New York Times article and local public outcry last week scuttled their controversial plan to limit dominant foreign (read: Kenyan) runners and put a Yankee Doodle face on the event to mollify its American sponsors. Instead, entries in the Bolder Boulder's elite event will be restricted to one team of three men and one team of three women from each country--including the good old U.S. of A.

That's called the Olympic format, and even if it's been instituted under duress, it has the appearance of democracy. This is Boulder, after all, a society unto itself that supposedly champions tolerance, political correctness and vegetarian burritos while banishing strife and smoking.

Where else do cops wearing Bermuda shorts ride mountain bikes?
But before anyone goes all mushy over wrongs that have been righted, take note that the elite race's prize-money structure will still favor American runners who defy the odds and finish in the top five. If a U.S. athlete, for instance, manages third place, he or she would win not the customary $1,000, but $2,000. If a U.S. team finishes second, the prize money would double from $7,000 to $14,000.

"The idea," race director Bill Reef says, "was never to produce a winner with blue eyes, as some people have charged. The idea was to get American runners to step up again, lace their shoes and race with the best."

Good luck.
It wasn't until the last minute that Bolder Boulder officials signed up three American women for this year's elite race. Last year ten U.S. women competed, and one of them, Fort Collins's Libbie Hickman, won the thing. She was the first U.S. winner of either sex at Boulder since 1984. But Hickman ran the Boston Marathon April 20, finishing twelfth, and has not recharged sufficiently to try the B.B. Instead, she'll do color commentary on the boob tube.

Maybe there will be a U.S. women's team this year, but it'll be no match for Ethiopia's brilliant Fatuma Roba, who won for the second straight year at Boston and apparently has enough gas left in the tank to negotiate Boulder's challenging ten kilometers.

The rest of us can be reasonably confident that the 1998 American men's team will finish the race--eventually. The U.S. Army is furnishing three young lieutenants not long out of West Point--Mike Bernstein, Dan Browne and Jason Stewart--to run in Boulder, but unless they're fueled by a major dose of Viagra, they're sure to lag behind the seasoned international road-racers in the field by many minutes.

"They're very gung-ho guys," Reef says. Too bad this isn't Desert Storm.
At least there are three of them. In 1997, only one American male ran the elite. In 1996, two did.

Meanwhile, some of the superb Kenyan athletes who have dominated world road-racing for the past decade will return to Boulder. Last year's winner, the stoic 22-year-old Hezron Otwori, will head up a world-class team featuring Simon Rono and an emergent young talent named Christopher Kelong, who recently finished sixth in the world cross-country championships.

How good are the Kenyan men? In 1997 they took six of the first eight places at Boulder, in 1996 eight of the top ten. At the Boston Marathon, America's premiere road race, they have won eight straight--including Moses Tanui's thrilling come-from-behind win April 20. Kenyans occupy twelve of the first fourteen spots in the world men's rankings, while no U.S. runner cracks the top twenty-five.

What's wrong with that? Would the American League make Ken Griffey Jr. ride the pine because he hits too many home runs? Should football banish Jerry Rice because his touchdown count is getting up there? Imagine Real Quiet barred from the Preakness because he's faster than a field of plow horses.

Still, organizers of several American distance races have tried to level the road. The George Sheehan five-mile race in Red Bank, New Jersey, began excluding Kenyans last year, and events in Jacksonville and Pittsburgh now award prize money only to Americans. The fifteen-kilometer event in Tampa discontinued prize money altogether; it had had no U.S. winner in nine years.

The rationale? Because homegrown runners no longer have a chance against the top foreigners, they're "demoralized," and road-running in the U.S. is dying. American sponsors and fans, Boulder's Reef says, insist on seeing Americans do well.

Not only that, the most fervent Yankee patriots claim, many foreign runners are as hard to communicate with on the winner's podium as they are to catch in the street. The reserved Kenyans, in particular, are branded as bad interviews who do little to promote the sport with enthusiastic words. Bad interviews? Apparently, the road-racing set has never tried to chat up charming Albert Belle or stone-faced Steve Carlton.

Critics of races that discourage foreigners (the Bolder Boulder included) charge that the real issue is not misdirected U.S. pride but outright racism. Agents for Kenyan runners, some of the runners themselves and even some of the American competitors who stand to benefit from limited foreign participation say the gold medals and prize money the Kenyans are piling up so impressively would be more palatable to audiences here were the winners not black Africans.

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