U.S. running on empty

Track and field: Three decades ago, Americans dominated long distance events. Now, as they fall further behind other countries, officials struggle to figure out why - and how to contend again

Olympic Spotlight

July 19, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Are the mile prospects playing soccer? Did affluence soften the marathoners?

The causes of the symptoms might be fuzzy, based as much on anecdotal evidence as fact, but the diagnosis is clear: Men's distance running in the United States is in critical condition. From the Rift Valley to both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, Africans and Europeans have established a swifter pace that has left the Americans behind.

In the six Olympic running events longer than a lap around a 400-meter track, the United States did not have a single man among the top 10 in the 1999 world rankings compiled by Track & Field News. From the 800 meters to the marathon, the U.S. men will probably not be a factor at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

What gives?

A physiologist would point to the high altitude that improves the aerobic capacity of Kenyans, Ethiopians and men from other nations situated along the Rift Valley in Africa.

An economist would weigh global forces. Athletes don't represent nations anymore, but corporations, and Nike is as interested in its runners in Nairobi as it is in the ones it funds in Los Angeles.

A sociologist would consider the American lifestyle, which has created sedentary generations and caused the President's Council on Physical Fitness to dumb down its requirements.

There is no great gulf separating American women from the rest of the world. Though there are Islamic nations such as Algeria that frown on women participating in sports, in the United States, Title IX - the federal law that mandates equal opportunities in sports - has created more college track scholarships for women than men.

Whatever the reasons, the United States longs for the days when it wasn't hard to find a male distance running star.

American stars

Once upon a time in America, the nation produced the world's best distance runners.

Billy Mills and Bob Schul won the 5,000 and 10,000, respectively, at the 1964 Olympics. That same year, Jim Ryun became the first high schooler to break four minutes in the mile, and soon after he was the world-record holder.

Those men inspired the Class of '72, which left the high-water mark for American men in international competition.

The Munich Olympics in 1972 closed with a Frank Shorter victory in the marathon. Dave Wottle won the gold medal in the 800, but teen-agers were more apt to emulate the fourth-place finisher in the 5,000. Steve Prefontaine was equal parts James Dean and Tiger Woods, a rebellious workaholic who might have been the greatest distance talent the United States has ever seen.

Prefontaine died in an auto accident in 1975, and American fortunes seemed to go with him. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics denied role models to an ensuing group of young men. While Americans discovered soccer, the rest of the world began to lap the U.S. team on the track.

"In 1979, I was the sixth-fastest miler ever," said Craig Masback, who clocked a 3:52.02 that year. "Two years later, seven men broke 3:51 in one race. That's progress, and that's what's great about our sport. That development had as much to do with more men from Kenya and other countries being identified and developed as with anything that happened here."

Masback is the chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, the governing body that is seeking ways to expand the sport's visibility beyond the Olympics and the Olympic trials that are being conducted here.

When American men ruled Olympic distance running in '72, Masback was a high school senior. Soccer was still a niche sport, to the extent that a little parish in East Baltimore, St. Elizabeth's, could help stock two NCAA championship teams, at the University of Baltimore and Loyola College.

Now, from Seattle to Tampa and Los Angeles to Columbia, boys who can run all day gravitate toward soccer. Yet Masback and a veteran area coach insist that soccer is not the enemy.

No couch potatoes

"If anything, soccer has helped distance running," said Jim Shank, the track coach at Westminster High, who makes his living operating an indoor soccer barn in Carroll County. "Not everyone sticks with that game, and if you don't make your high school team, you've done a lot of running that's helped your stamina and speed. That's certainly better than being a couch potato."

Couch potatoes do not last long with Shank.

This spring, he got Jesse O'Connell down to 1:51.67 in the 800, one of the best times ever by an area boy. In 1979, one of Shank's stars was involved in the best distance race ever staged in Maryland. The Owls' Karsten Shulz and Kenwood's Mike Sheely both ran under 4:12 in the mile - and lost in the state 4A meet to Laurel's Wayne Morris.

They were the last area boys to mount a serious attempt at the area record of 4:10 that Dulaney's Bob Wheeler established 30 years ago. Since that epic 4A race in 1979, only a handful of area boys have gone under 4:17 in the mile or its slightly shorter metric version, the 1,600. Times have changed, because, well, times have changed.

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