Crossing the Line
Running’s Identity Crisis
“Oh sure, I go on runs, but I’m not, like, a runner.” This is something my younger sister said to me recently. She runs five or six times a week.
Running is one of the simplest and most accessible sports on the planet, yet it struggles to inspire fans and participants who identify as runners. For people all over the world, running is their primary form of exercise. Strava users alone logged 288 million kilometres in 2020, and the number of marathons recorded tripled in 2020 over 2019. According to Forbes, track and field has the highest participation numbers of any North American high-school sport.
So the fan base is definitely there, yet viewership of our sport continues to spiral downward. With the exception of the 100m final (which featured Usain Bolt), the 2016 Olympics had the lowest viewership of any Games since viewership was measured. If so many people run, why do so few runners feel invested in the sport?
I used to be a runner who didn’t identify as one. Until my late university years, I knew nothing about the sport beyond the events I raced in and the women I raced against. I now willingly wake up at 4 a.m. to watch international marathons on TV, and I even find a 10,000m race – 25 laps of the track – exciting to watch. What’s changed in the last three years is that I learned about many competitive runners through writing about the sport, and this running education has made me a lifelong, die-hard fan.
At track meets and marathons, runners are introduced and known largely for their accomplishments, with little mention of their lives outside of running. Networks are reluctant to show entire distance races, fearing that viewers will click away. But distances over 3,000m (which the Diamond League threatened to cut in 2020) can be some of the most suspenseful sports events in the world. What’s boring is a 15-minute race filled with comments about people’s height, weight, country of origin and previous Diamond League titles. If you can get 9.5 million people to tune in to a 40-hour weekend of golf, the length of the event and viewers’ attention spans aren’t the problem.
People are drawn to personal stories. The 21-year-old American 100m runner, Sha’Carri Richardson, is among the fastest women in the world in 2021. Michelle Obama has started following her career, and she’s been written about in Vogue. In early July, after winning the U.S. Olympic Trials and qualifying for her first Olympics, she was suspended from competition for a month after testing positive for thc. Richardson accepted the ban and apologized.
What Richardson has over other equally talented and accomplished runners is her ability to capture an audience with her personality, her story and her results. Even when she broke the rules, her honesty and vulnerability led people to continue to root for her. Running needs more people like her.
Broadcasters, journalists and the athletes themselves need to do a better job of explaining to the public why they should root for them, because it’s painfully obvious that being fast isn’t enough. We need to root for people – not just times and medals. If we have more people and performances to root for, the trickle-down effect could benefit the sport at large. And I think we’d suddenly find ourselves knowing more people who call themselves runners.
Madeleine Kelly, who lives in Hamilton, Ont., was the 2019 Canadian 800m champion. In July she was selected to represent Canada at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. This was her first national team and her first Olympics.