The culture of running

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There’s more to pro running than the Olympics. Here’s what you need to know.

There’s more to pro running than the Olympics. Here’s what you need to know.

According to, around 20 million people participate in “running events” in the U.S. every year. That number would likely more than double if one were to also include every casual jogger and others who abstain from timed competition.  By virtue of its simplicity, and the way it lends itself to training regimens for almost every other athletic endeavor, from boxing to soccer, running may be the most widely practiced sport in the world. 

It is perhaps all the more notable, then, that aside from recent doping allegations, most people don’t have a clue about professional running. Is there another sport that is so ubiquitous, yet obscure on the elite level? Play a game of pickup basketball anywhere in the country and your fellow hoopsters can probably reel off enough NBA player names to fill a phonebook. But ask a random person at your local Turkey Trot 5K to name the top three American 5000-meter runners and they’ll look as though you’ve just asked them to explain Newton’s law of gravitation.

To help shed some light onto the murky landscape of professional running, here’s a brief primer on the sport’s major competitions.

The worldwide governing body for the sport, both for track and field and road racing events, is the International Association of Athletics Federations, or the IAAF. Founded in 1912 as the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the organization is the central authority on everything from Olympic qualifying times, athlete rankings and world records, to equipment and course requirements. It is because of IAAF standards on net elevation gain/loss, for instance, that the Boston Marathon course is ineligible for world record times. 

The IAAF also stages a bevy of international meets, including cross-country championships, indoor championships, and major competitions at the “Youth” (under 17) and “Junior” (under 19) levels. For the layman, however, the two most significant IAAF competitions are the World Championships and the Diamond League Series

The biennial World Championships in Athletics always occur in non-Olympic, “odd” years; this year they are taking place in Beijing during the last week of August. The competition typically attracts the crème de la crème of the sport. For a professional track athlete, the prestige of the World Championships is rivaled only by that of the Olympic Games.

The Diamond League is an annual series of 14 one-day track and field meets that take place on three continents during the outdoor season from May until September. 

Until recently, all major annual IAAF meets were in Europe. The majority of them still are, but this year also featured Diamond League events in Eugene, Ore., New York City, Shanghai, and Doha, Qatar. As we’ve written before, the Diamond League series can be considered the “regular-season” of professional track and field, though not every season will culminate in a major international championship. 

In this country, track and field national championships are held every year and are organized by USA Track & Field (USATF), the governing body of the sport in the United States. As participation is limited to U.S. citizens, the outdoor national championship itself may not be as competitive as Diamond League meets that often draw the best in the world. The event has an important distinction however: in Olympic and World Championship years, the U.S. national championships double as the official qualifying event for the U.S. national team, with the top three finishers in each event being offered a spot. (Well, an athlete will get a spot on the Olympic team as long as he or she finishes in the top three and has run the entry standard for the Olympic Games, which is determined by the IAAF.)

Which brings us to the Olympics, the only competition the vast majority of non-track and field fans watch. Track athletes like Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt, who have transcended the realm of anonymity that is the fate of most professional oval runners, have done so largely because of the marketing muscle behind the summer Olympic Games. For a runner, there is no bigger stage.

All clear? Great. Now get running. 

Filed To: Athletes / Events / Running / Road Running