Last week the Competitor Group announced their plan to drop their elite athlete program at all of their races, including the wildly popular Rock n’ Roll run series. They felt that the cost of continuing this program outweighed the benefit of bringing in top level athletes to their races. This news was very disappointing to me on a number of levels.
I believe that professionals offer a type of credibility to a race. The pointy end of the field is the focus of media attention and the times that are set by pros often inspire those finishing behind them – a barometer of what the human body is capable of doing.
The value of the professional athlete, whether at a running or triathlon event, has always been debatable. There are people who just don’t care what is happening in front of them at any given race while others staunchly follow the frontrunners and look forward to seeing how they perform. But, to those who don’t care about the pros, I hope my discourse will change your mind and help you understand why pros are relevant to our beloved sports of running and triathlon.
Ultimately, the decision to have a group of professionals race is in the hands of the race director and/or race owners and this decision comes down to financial viability. Is it cost effective to bring in pros and offer prize money? How does this group of people enhance a given race and on a more global level, how does it enhance the sport?
While I strongly believe that professional runners and triathletes are an integral part of racing, I have long felt that race organizers and sponsors under-utilize these athletes who come to their races. Professional athletes often show up and race and do nothing more; they feel that it is solely their job to race fast. But the onus is also on the event organizers who often don’t ask much more from their professional athletes.
On behalf of races, I have sat on pro panels or attended press conferences and on behalf of sponsors, I have stood at booths and signed autographs. I still see this type of construct used in the running and triathlon community and I feel that it is somewhat antiquated.
The problem is that only a small fraction of the racers know these events are happening and even fewer show up. I once sat on a panel at the LA marathon; of the 20,000 registrants there were less than 100 people in the audience.
I have answered excellent questions raised by nervous athletes, but I never felt like this process really made a difference.
One of my best experiences at the 2008 triathlon Olympic trials in Tuscaloosa was giving a presentation to a local middle school. They welcomed me with signs and banners and they listened attentively to my stories about racing. My pink and black bike caught their eye. I was the first “celebrity” to ever talk at their school. That day I felt like I made difference.
Community talks are the types of things that sponsors, race organizers and athletes must be willing to do. It is a way to make the athlete relevant, increase exposure for the race, and give the community a glimpse into a world that is completely foreign to them and perhaps may inspire a little kid to take up sports.
Beyond the grassroots approach, the media has always been a large part of triathlon and running. What put triathlon on the map? Images of Julie Moss, a professional triathlete, crawling to the Ironman finish line. And, in June, when Bernard Koech of Kenya ran 58:41 at Rock n Roll San Diego, most of the major media outlets picked up the story. It was big news to have a time that fast run on American soil. I did not read, however, about the finisher who came in at 2 hours.
The point is, the general public likes to read about amazing feats, and the Competitor Group gained a lot of publicity for that insanely fast run which they would not have received just by the recreational runners. I wonder how many people read that result and decided to sign up for RnR San Diego to set a half marathon PR? Traditional advertising alone cannot bring the same attention to an event than the remarkable feats of the professional athletes who are breaking records and testing the limitations of the human body.
The level of competition at the front of the race trickles down to the very last finisher. I have been the direct beneficiary of the elite athlete program set up by CGI at their Rock n Roll series. I have never received an appearance fee or a travel stipend. What I have received is a high level of competition which has pushed me to set a personal best in all three of the RnR races I competed in over the last few years. When the athletes at the front race fast, they are being chased by every person behind them, thus improving times across the board. I have never yet met an athlete who has been disappointed over setting a personal best.
What about the relationship between professional athletes and sponsors? Sponsors create and test their products on the top athletes and they expect the athletes to show up at races using their goods. Innovations in bikes, running shoes, clothing, wheels, components, wetsuits, helmets and most other gear are all made with SPEED in mind with the bottom line of getting their athletes to the finish line first (preferably with their athlete beating other fast professional athletes). Prototypes are given to the top athletes for training and racing. Who doesn’t look longingly at all of the fancy bikes ridden by the top triathletes? The products that are used by the professionals are almost always put on the market to be snatched up by amateur racers. If race organizers start deciding that professional athletes are superfluous, then sponsors do not get the recognition they need and want, and suddenly the symbiotic relationship between the athlete-race organizer-sponsor-amateur is broken.
I firmly believe that professional athletes offer value and credibility to running and triathlon. It is up to the athletes, race organizers and sponsors to come together to redefine and refine the athlete role in an effort to make the athletes more relevant. The effects of the decision by CGI to drop their elite athlete will reach further than the few hundred professional athletes that frequent their events. Is anyone else worried that WTC is scratching their heads and wondering if they should do the same?