The media needs to get better at “personalizing” the best runners on the planet
The London Marathon is taking place on Sunday. Once again, the event that consistently features the highest concentration of running talent has outdone itself. For better or worse, London’s pre-race hype has become an annual exercise in hyperbole—the endurance sports world’s equivalent of an iPhone launch.
“Almost every year, we find ourselves saying that London has put together the greatest marathon field of all time,” LetsRun wrote back in January when the elite fields were announced. “And then another year passes, and we say it again. We keep saying it because it’s true.”
The 2019 edition of the greatest marathon of all time features a women’s race with six athletes who have run under 2:20, including three-time champ Mary Keitany. Meanwhile, on the men’s side, we get a rematch of last year’s showdown between world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and four-time Olympic gold-medalist Mo Farah.
And those are only the biggest names. London being London, there will be many other athletes taking part who have run astonishingly quick times, but whose identities will likely only be familiar to hardcore running fans. Or can you tell me who finished second in the men’s race last year, sharing the podium with the two idols Kipchoge (first) and Farah (third)? It was Ethiopia’s Shura Kitata Tola, a man whose relative anonymity was highlighted in a Runner’s World article prior to last fall’s NYC Marathon. The headline for that article read: “Haven’t Heard of Shura Kitata? You’ll Probably See Him up Front on Sunday.” (This proved accurate; Kitata finished second in New York, running 2:06:01, the third-quickest time ever recorded on the course.)
By showcasing the fastest runners on the planet, the London Marathon is also an implicit reminder of the sad reality that so many of the sport’s finest practitioners seem condemned to obscurity. This has been a longstanding issue for those of us in the media looking to increase pro running’s visibility—and hence marketability. Not that we aren’t partially responsible for the problem.
“Fans of athletics—and specifically of long-distance running—have become used to a lack of knowledge on the part of commentators that would be shocking in any other sport,” the Guardian’s Michael Crawley wrote back in 2017 in an article about track stars Tim Cheruiyot and Jemel Yimer. “The collective term ‘the East Africans’ is used to describe a group of individuals diverse in both culture and personality,” Crawley lamented further.
There’s been some media self-policing on our side of the Atlantic as well. After last fall’s New York City Marathon, the cover page of the special “Marathon” edition section of the Times had a photo of Keitany ripping through the Bronx section of the course after she’d ditched all of her rivals. The headline read, “Winner Leaves the Pack Out of the Picture,” which was enough cause LetsRun staff writer Jonathan Gault to take up arms on Twitter.
“Running has a problem with publicity because of headlines like this,” Gault wrote. “That winner is not a faceless African. Her name is Mary Keitany, she has won NYC 4x and she is one of the greatest marathoners of all time.”
One could argue that this specific grievance is a little forced, but Gault is right when he suggests that pro running needs to ensure its heroes aren’t reduced to “faceless Africans.”
On a hyper-local level, there have been some efforts to address the issue: Elmwood Elementary in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, sits about one mile away from the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Since 1993, the school has been celebrating something called “Kenya Day,” where students learn about the country and research individual Kenyan runners who are racing Boston that year. On the Thursday before the race, several of these elites visit the school and are feted in a ceremony before an athlete Q&A.
“It’s very encouraging that people study about us and where we come from, so that when we come here and run, it’s not just any other skinny Kenyan running,” Boston 2012 champ Wesley Korir told local news provider HCAM at this year’s event. “They personalize us and it’s surprising how much they know about each and every one of the athletes here.”
Even the sport’s most prominent ambassadors could benefit from a little more “personalizing” by the media—especially when it comes to profiling elite marathoners who might only compete two times a year. The publicity team behind the London Marathon seems to be aware of this. Earlier this month, they released a short film called “Eliud” profiling the best marathoner in history in his training camp in Kaptagat. (They did the same for women’s defending champion Vivian Cheruiyot.) The film shows Kipchoge and his team running in the hills of the Rift Valley; we see him relaxing over tea; we see him tending to mundane housekeeping chores in a way that one might not expect from a guy whose athletic career has garnered him wealth and fame. His modest sleeping quarters are reminiscent of a college dorm room. (Rather than a Scarface poster, Kipchoge has a picture of Nike CEO Mark Parker over his bed, which, I have to admit, is kind of disappointing.)
This ascetic lifestyle is very much part of Kipchoge’s image, as is his fondness for inspirational quotes. “Eliud” may only ten minutes long, but it’s stuffed with so many maxims that you come away feeling like you need to recalibrate your whole existence. To be successful in sport is not a chance—it’s a choice. You must know who you are and what you stand for. Success comes with sacrifice. One percent of the whole team is really more important that one hundred percent of yourself. Devoid of context, this sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from an uninspired motivational speaker, but one of Kipchoge’s many gifts is an ability to make even the most tired platitude sound convincing.
Nonetheless, we should resist the temptation of portraying him as distance running’s holy man. I know this is an easy trap to fall into. As evidenced during the London Marathon press conference on Wednesday, the language barrier can sometimes make Kipchoge appear more phlegmatic (not to say enigmatic) than he really is. Also, his ridiculous record in the marathon (ten wins and one second place finish in eleven races) is enough to give him an air of the supernatural. But to characterize Kipchoge as the sport’s invincible stoic is to deprive him of a personality. It almost makes him boring.
Which is why I’m grateful that “Eliud” includes my favorite Kipchoge moment. When he breaks the tape in world record time at the 2018 Berlin Marathon, he brings his hands to his head in a gesture of joyous amazement at what he’s just accomplished. A second later, he leaps into the arms of his coach Patrick Sang, in the manner of, as Outside columnist Alex Hutchinson wrote at the time, an “amorous bride.” We’re so used to imagining Kipchoge as the epitome of control that when see him momentarily disarmed it comes as a bit of a shock. Not that it should. The guy’s only human, after all.