One of the most vexing conundrums the U.S. running community faces is a real lack of so called 'stars'. Steve Prefontaine was the only U.S. runner that truly fell into this category. Not only was Pre exceptionally gifted, but he was an iconoclastic personality. Pre directly confronted the AAU, he showed his pain when he ran, and he was almost never judicious in his choice of words. It was Pre's combination of exceptional talent, arrogance, and individuality that defined him and set him apart. Nike is still milking the Pre mystique more than 30 years after his death! Unquestionably, Pre was a remarkable talent, but why has the next Pre yet to materialize?
Think about some of the other sports 'stars' for a minute. When people think of U.S. tennis, they often think of 'personalities' (a thinly veiled euphemism for 'stars'). People think of Jimmy Connors, a man who engaged his audience in ways that few (if any) ever have. Connors effectively used the audience in the 1991 U.S. Open to drive his 38 year old body to the semifinals. John McEnroe similarly engaged (and often enraged) his audience. McEnroe's talent was only matched by his often embarrassing displays of anger. Yet..we still remember him as one of the greats. Ironically, one of the best U.S. players ever Pete Sampras was often criticized for his lack of outward displays of passion, competitiveness, and intensity.
So, what do Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have to do with U.S. running and Steve Prefontaine? A lot, actually. Pre loved his fans and they adored him. The stands at Hayward Field would shake when Pre hit the track. Rather than stoically going about his business, Pre made a point of engaging with his fans. He knew that his race wasn't just a competition, it was a 'performance'. These fans were there to see him perform. Pre never did anything to conceal his pain, fatigue, and discomfort. He let it all hang out and the fans loved him for it. They cheered him on and these cheers often acted as fuel for Pre to push a bit harder and the fans would cheer even harder. It was a symbiotic relationship. In much the same way that someone like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, or even Terrell Owens engages with the crowd. While most of us will never be professional athletes, Pre (and the aforementioned athletes) allow us an opportunity to experience their pain and elation vicariously.
Who at the elite level in the U.S. has that unique combination of charismatic personality and exceptional talent? Arguably, no one. With Meb Keflezghi's silver medal performance in the 2004 Olympic marathon and Deena Kastor's bronze in the women's event, the U.S. achieved a modicum of credibility at the global level in distance running. Likewise, Alan Culpepper and a few other distance runners are frequently in the top 10-20 in the big marathons, but with the exception of Meb and Deena, there are very few U.S. runners positioned to threaten a podium finish.
This is a large part of the problem. The talent may very well be there, but the infrastructure to foster and grow the talent is largely absent (with the exception of Nike's 'Oregon Project' and a few others in the same vein). In stark contrast, Kenya has high altitude camps catered specifically towards their most talented harriers. Those who spend time in these camps are exclusively focused on training and racing. With few exceptions, there is nothing like this in the U.S.
Above and beyond developing talent, is the question of 'personality' or the 'IT' factor. Most runners appear stoic when they're running 26.2 miles. Granted, in the last few miles fatigue and pain may bubble to the surface, but to an outsider, it's understandable how it might 'appear' that a runner isn't necessarily engaged in a mighty internal battle.
Above and beyond the typical lack of externalization of this inner battle is the fact that most races (13.1 miles and above) are not conducive to taking place in stadiums. Running simply is not the most spectator friendly sport. Even if a runner has the talent and personality of a Steve Prefontaine, there are few opportunities to engage with an audience during the course of a half marathon or marathon.
So, where will the next Pre come from? Will there EVER be a U.S. runner that has the unique combination of exceptional talent and personality that will remind us of him? I don't see it happening anytime in the near future, but there is hope and there are signs that it could happen. An analogous situation happened for men's soccer in the U.S. not too long ago.
In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup. Fortunately, the U.S. managed to qualify and remarkably made it out of the first round before falling valiantly to an exceptional Brazilian team. Since then, a professional soccer league was formed in the U.S. While this league has definitely struggled and some of the teams have folded, the league has provided an avenue for post-collegiate and semi-professional players to develop their skills and compete at a quasi-professional level. The MSL has even managed to lure some exceptional foreign players into the league.
Fast forward to this year's World Cup and arguably we're looking at the strongest U.S. team in decades. Was this happenstance? I would argue that it was the U.S.'s performance in 1994 and the subsequent creation of the MSL that ENABLED fledgling talent to take their abilities to the next level. Granted, we're still YEARS away from winning a World Cup and we don't have a Pele (but we do have Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu!), but we're on the right track!
Why couldn't something comparable be done with running? An amateur or professional running 'league' that has a team in a number of major cities. Each event could be hosted at a stadium and comprised of a number of events: 800M, 1600M, 3200M, 5000M, 10000M, etc. Post-collegiate runners who are not yet at the elite level could feed into this league and develop their skills for a few years and pay their bills. I have to imagine that over time something like this would help many runners get to the next level.
By hosting these events at local stadiums running becomes more conducive to spectating. Locals could cheer on their teams from the comfort of the stands with their beer and sausage in hand. Given the close confines of a stadium, this would also provide an opportunity for athletes to connect with their fans.
A typical season might run during the summer (June-August). Similar to all other professional sports, a certain number of teams would make the 'playoffs' based on team performance throughout the season. OK..it's a pipedream, but as a passionate runner and someone who believes running contains at least as much human drama as baseball, it pains me that there is nothing like this out there.
While the idea of a running league may be farfetched, in order for the U.S. to produce a Pre (or Pre-wannabe), something has to change. The creation of a running league would seem to address at least some of these issues or at least create more interest in the sport. If Nike's serious about finding the next Pre, they need to do something more than simply create a clothing line in Pre's honor.