Re: Re: Steve Jones, Mark Plaatjes and Greg Meyer on the sport today

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Part II:

In Part I of our collective interview concerning how Americans and British men might return to the win columns again in international racing, Steve Jones, Mark Plaatjes and Greg Meyer—three who have paid some very productive dues—all stressed taking risk in marathoning as essential in winning the big ones…

In Part II, Jones continues the dialogue with a discussion of certain funding elements of the club system. His opinion is that coaches should be supported through payments from their athletes. “The thing to remember is that these guys are really trying,” commented the Welshman about the young post-collegiate runners of today. “They are trying their best. Maybe it’s the coaching. Maybe they don’t have the hero to look up to and the motivation. And there is no support system outside the local running clubs and local teams. There’s no support from the USATF. And the support goes to the wrong people. It’s like Brad Hudson’s team. He’s got guys on his team earning $100,000 a year, and the team still gets a part of that budget that comes out of New York Road Runners. Which isn’t fair. Not fair to the Hanson’s, not fair to the other teams that are trying to put not an elite team together. But that’s where you find your heroes of tomorrow, your champions of tomorrow, of ground-level people. Coaching with them and working with them to try and get them to raise the bar. It shouldn’t go to the top people. I remember when I started earning money, and all of a sudden everybody wanted to give a fund. I had a trust fund and the board wanted to give me money to run races, and everybody else wanted to give me money. I didn’t need the money, it was the guys behind me. I needed the money three years ago, and that’s what’s happening today.”

While Jones may feel benefactors might apportion their donations somewhat differently, he is well aware that these generous donations have begun to show results, witness the American showings this summer on the tracks of Europe. Meyer extolled their progress, as well. “Steve touched on the club system, and I think that’s making an impact,” said the last U.S. male to win in Beantown. “I think that’s why. You saw at least a wave of guys run well at Boston this year. But what was interesting, is it’s the first time they’ve shown up at Boston. I mean, because they hadn’t been there in years before. And part of that credit, there’s a new board at the B.A.A. that wants to help and do some things. The Hansons’ (Hansons-Brooks Distance Project) Group is one of the clubs. I look at them—and I’m biased because I know those guys now—but, they’re out racing; they’re committed to the sport; they want their guys in different places. And when they show up, they just don’t show up and race, they show up and do whatever is expected of them at a race. And they do it with a smile on their faces, happy to be there. It’s like—no offense—we enjoyed our sport. These guys come in and treat it like a business. It’s a transaction. Got the race done, I’m in, I’m gone. And it’s like, I don’t know where that passion is.” Jones also commented regarding the quick-in and quick-out racing attitude of many athletes. “I don’t agree with flyin’ in the day before and flyin’ out straight after the race. Because that does nothing for the sport. It just takes out.” Part of the problem may be race directors taking back control of certain elements of their events when they have provided air transportation or hotel rooms, or both. “But the race directors aren’t organized enough to do that,” continued Meyer. “So that may happen in one place, but they’ll all go somewhere else and they don’t give a crap.”

All three of our interviewees feel a set of guidelines for the rights and responsibilities of both athletes and races should be appropriate. “There has to be a code of ethics on both sides of the border, of course,” said Jones. “But if you are brought into a race and are given a room and a flight, then there are certain obligations, and you shouldn’t be allowed to leave town until at least a day after the race.” Jones, Plaatjes and Meyer feel that it is then no surprise when many races still rely upon affable personalities from the past to brighten up their event. “Yah, I was just mentioning the fact that Steamboat has brought Steve, Greg and myself out to this race,” related Plaatjes. “We’re not even competing, but why do you think we’re here? Because we formed relationships with these guys, and they want us here because we add something to the event. Young guys come and talk to us—we really do add something to the event. And this is what these young guys are missing. Is that, you come to an event, you form a relationship, and it will be a relationship for a very long term, for life. And this is not happening, this is the problem. People come in, race, get their prize money, and they’re out the next day. You know how this (Steamboat Classic 4M) weekend goes. People stay around. We go out and we go to have dinner, we go out and dance. We stay, we run (the Sunday) Boredom (Run), we have breakfast, and then we leave. And that’s what makes this race great. And all race directors should be held responsible to say, ‘If we book your tickets, this is what’s going to happen. If this doesn’t happen, you cannot come.’”

Jones even feels penalties, such are levied in other sports, should prove effective in mandating participation in the entire agenda of an event. “Fine them,” he stressed. “If they win prize money and they’re not at a certain place at a certain time, fine them.” Meyer agrees. “You don’t fulfill your obligation, we’re going to take ten percent off the top. But none of them (race directors) have the guts to do it.” “You’re a race director, you could start it,” Jones responded to Meyer. “We tell people exactly what our expectations are, and here’s where you have to be, and if you don’t show up at the awards,” Meyer answered regarding the events with which he works. “Because regardless of the fact that, OK, you might piss somebody off,” continued Jones, “and they say, ‘OK, we’re not coming back next year—’” “I don’t want ‘em back,” countered Meyer. “Nobody cares, nobody cares. The media doesn’t care, the other athletes don’t care. And you wouldn’t care—the race directors don’t care. Because at the end of the day the sad thing about our sport is that the race will still go on. That’s not the sad thing: the sad thing is they can do without us. And I say us, I mean the guys that are running today.”

Plaatjes then interjected that a lot of races are going away from invited athletes. “Because that’s not what draws the interest, any more,” opined Jones. “It’s raising five million dollars for leukemia, or human interest stories of trying to run PRs and break personal records. That’s what it’s all about now.” Plaatjes feels that the current direction of road racing is changing: “There’s a really interesting thing happening in running,” remarked the former world marathon champion. “In that we have huge increases in numbers. Marathons are selling out way in advance, all of this. However, if you look at where this is being driven by, it’s being driven by a number of people who have now found out that running can be a social event. I can meet with five, six ladies and we can drop our kids off at school, and we can meet and we can go for a run, we can get our exercise in. Perhaps we can socialize. And we can go to a race and it doesn’t have to be a race. We can just go and participate. That’s where the numbers are coming from. And those are not the people who are interested in—OK, how fast did they run this race? They don’t know who won, they don’t care, and that’s where a lot of race directors are getting their feedback from. You know, when you have a 50,000-people race and the prize money is $5,000, give me a break. It should be $20,000. It should be 20-deep.”

Jones still feels there is room for ambassadors of the sport. “This is why we’re still involved,” said the former marathon world recordholder. “Because we are the interest now. It’s not Korir or Khannouchi or anybody else. Because we are their connection to the mass crowds now.” Meyer concurs with Plaatjes and Jones. “Really, I think the guy who epitomizes that the most is Bill Rodgers…People know him. They’ll walk up and Bill will pretend he knows every one of them, and sit and talk with them to the end of the day. And you guys have been the same as that. These guys now don’t do that. And it’s just different. But your point about the only reason some races will bring in elites, and why you may see some races revert back to appearance money, is all they want out of the media is announcing the names who are coming. If they can build media into the event going in, it helps drive some of their numbers. And it helps their sponsors and all the other stuff. But without that element to it, after the race, they’re not interviewing these guys anymore. These guys get done and they’re gone. They don’t care. So that’s the only reason some of these races are still going for elite athletes, is that they are building the front end of the story. It’s not afterwards. Nobody cares who wins. It’s, can we build the story around the pre-race event?”

The three were then asked what suggestions they might have to improve the future of the sport. “It depends upon whether you’re looking at it from an athlete’s perspective or a race director’s perspective,” answered Jones. “As an athlete’s perspective, an athlete has to be held to certain standards, certain obligations, a certain code of ethics, whether it’s written by ARRA or PRRO or RRCA. I really think there has to be some kind of—we tried to do it with ARRA—a code of ethics, where you have certain obligations for showing up, regardless of whether you get an appearance fee or not, if they pay your hotels and your airfare. Your obligation is there right away. I think that race directors have to be more honest with each other, as a profession and as an organization, and be willing to stand up and say, ‘You’re not coming to my race again. You didn’t fulfill…’—which means you have to miss the next race, or the next race. So there has to be some kind of penalty for that.”

Plaatjes thinks moving to bigger ponds is the only way for an athlete to test him- or herself seriously. “I sincerely believe that if a lot of the young American runners change their mindset about competition—and guys like Dathan are doing it a little bit—but going to the big stakes, going to Europe and racing the cross country season,” he suggests. “Running USA Cross Nationals doesn’t do anything to get you ready for World Cross. You should be over there racing the European cross country season. You need to go and run four or five races before you go to run World Cross, and to get in the fray, and just get dirty. They just need to do that. They just need to stop—sponsors, shoe companies, all of those guys—stop making this the Big Pond. They need to say, ‘You need to be going over there and racing these guys and showing them.’ They need to make these guys hungry. And I know a lot of the young Americans will completely disagree with this, from an outsider perspective I really believe that.” Or maybe they need simply to take more risk domestically. “Like all these Hansons guys here today, and Justin (Young) as well,” adds Jones. “They’re hungry for it.”

Plaatjes then observed that lack of money often promotes hunger. “None of these guys have $150,000 contracts,” he emphasized. “I know, but that should be one of the motivating things,” responded Jones. “Not the motivating thing, but certainly one of the motivating things to try and get them to raise their standards and run. I think it’s the right motivation, and I think the right motivation should (also) be coming from their peers and their coaches. I really think that’s where it’s going to come from. I’m not a coach—well, I’m a coach by experience. I’m not an educated coach, I’m not a scientific coach. And it seems to be workin’ for a bunch of (Boulder Express) guys I’m workin’ with. And they’re motivated, we’re all motivated, every single one of them. We have a great social thing, we get together for barbecues, but I think that’s where it starts. And once again, it’s the club level, and it’s a bunch of guys that just want to get better. They’re not looking for Olympic Trials and Olympic gold medals, they just want to get better.”…
End Part II (Final Part – and RS obervations, coming soon…) – RS