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."
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.
Judging by the volume of outraged letters to the editor and talk-show outbursts, many local citizens feel the same way. "This is one of America's most progressive cities?" asks 26-year-old Jamie Kamen, out for an afternoon run of her own last week in Boulder. "I don't think so. Do you really have to be white to get respect from the race organizers? What they tried to do to the Kenyans is complete hypocrisy. I'll tell you this: I'll be at the race, and I'll be cheering those guys home. They're the best."
There was a time, long before the current flap, when U.S. distance runners could call themselves the best, or close to it. In 1972 American Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in the marathon, and in the 1970s Bill Rogers won four New York and four Boston marathons. Since 1980, though, homegrown talent has steadily declined, and a nation that loves winners has grown disillusioned with the sport.
"Ask 100 people why it happened," says Boulder's Reef, "and you'll get 200 different answers. Maybe it's cyclical. Maybe the sport isn't attractive enough anymore to kids. I don't know. We would just like Americans to compete and to nurture the sport if they do well."
One contrast stands out above all others. For a Kenyan tribesman from the underdeveloped Rift Valley, where the median income is as low as $280 a year, the Bolder Boulder's $5,000 individual first prize must look enormous. The $80,000 purse Moses Tanui won last month in Boston is a king's ransom. For middle-class Americans, the financial picture is much different.
Whatever their reasons for failure, American runners are not likely to make race organizers in this country happy anytime soon--unless the racing rules get so ludicrously distorted that only slowpokes are allowed to lace up the Nikes. And the controversy over exclusionary rules in Boulder and elsewhere probably won't go away anytime soon.
"Those who want to scream epithets and falsehoods will keep on doing it," Reef says.
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Ironically, the elite field for the May 25 Bolder Boulder is the most diverse ever--25 foreign teams representing fifteen foreign countries, including the debut of a women's team from China. They'll go for $64,500 in prizes, up from $47,000 last year.
Despite the dominance of the Kenyan men, race organizers say, teams from Morocco and Mexico are conceding nothing to Hezron Otwori and company.
And that trio of young bravehearts from West Point? Don't wait up.
In fact, there's just one hope this year for fans of distance running hoping to wave the Stars and Stripes. In Germany, one of the many court cases involving the files of the Stasi, the former East German secret police, is examining a long-buried report on the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. One of the names mentioned in the report is that of Waldemar Cierpinski, the East German marathoner who won the gold medal in that event. If Cierpinski is stripped of his gold medal for drug use, it will be awarded to the second-place finisher, Frank Shorter of the U.S.
Shorter hasn't run competitively in twenty years. But for a moment, the glory days would be back.