This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The New York City Marathon runs this Sunday and it's an odd thing. It's odd that, while the event has grown hugely in participant numbers (some 40,000 this year, compared to the few 55 maverick souls in the inaugural year, 1970) and has attracted bigger and bigger crowds each year (some 2 million line the neighborhood streets now, offering tastes of their Italian or Polish or Vietnamese goodies as the runners stream by), but whereas the event used to be televised nationally, its coverage is now a mere one-hour packaged highlight show, offered only in the New York area. When I worked for ABC Sports back in the 1980's, we considered the New York Marathon an elite event. We had an expensive studio set-up, Jim McKay hosting, 35 cameras in helicopters and motorcycle side cars and all kinds of fixed points along the route. If the event has grown exponentially, why has its national coverage waned so dramatically?
I guess the driving success of the marathon, worldwide, these days is the masses. Even though there are exciting fields of the best in the world, both men and women, at the front of the pack, it's not those wunderrunners who bring in sponsorship dollars to the races that, like New York, have longstanding growth and put on a huge party every year. Berlin, London, Chicago, and certainly Boston all attract that same neighborhood of 40,000 entrants every year and those cities are infused with retail cash flow over the week leading up to those races. And there are twofold the 40,000 who would like to run in these big cities every year. It's only a security cap that keeps the number limited to where it is now. As a matter of fact, the Boston Marathon ranks second in the world behind only the SuperBowl in the number of press credentials issued (1200) for a one-day sporting event. But those are either foreign press, actually interested in the elite level of the race, or American press who have come to believe it's the everyman story that serves as the pulse of the marathon. It's the ultimate badge of individual honor that pushes the already overwhelmed mother of three to get up before dark for her training runs, to suffer blisters and cramps and stress fractures from the long miles on hard pavement, to act as if a professional athlete, just to have the chance to dive in with the masses and endure the pain of the day all the way to the finish line. It's that simple, cheap medal on a neck ribbon, that moment of bragging rights at the proverbial office water cooler, for which all these thousands of individuals train their hearts out over the course of the year before the big day.
And that's exactly why the marathon is no longer a premiere sporting event. We are drawn to the story of the everyman marathoner but not the elite winners. When Paul Tergat won the 2005 New York City race in a thrilling sprint to the wire finish, literally taking the lead by one stride, the New York Times headline the next day ran “Kenyan wins it by a step”. That would be as if Wimbledon headlines read “Spaniard takes the grass title” instead of using Nadal's name.
This Sunday, the women's field in New York is stellar. The fastest ever, England's Paula Radcliffe, goes up against world number two, Kenyan Catherine Ndereba. Tough Ethiopians Gete Wami and Dire Tune have the speed and stamina to win it as well. But there isn't an American audience excited about tuning in to two hours of running through city streets to warrant coverage of the Olympic champions and world record holders who lead these elite marathon races.
As I say, it's odd. The New York City Marathon is much more than it used to be. And yet, at the very same time, it's not what it used to be.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: Runners make their way to the finish line of the New York City Marathon in New York, November 4, 2007. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images