The Price of Fairness: How Many Categories of Athletes Should We Have?

The hottest spark in the women’s testosterone controversy: the case of Caster Semenya

The standoff between Caster Semenya and the IAAF concerning levels of testosterone permitted for women in international competition has driven so much heated debate on both sides, that a middle-ground compromise was proposed by former 10,000 meter world champion Liz McColgan. The proposal: have separate events for transgender athletes and those with differences of sex development (DSD) like Caster Semenya, in addition to the conventional men’s and women’s categories.

The IAAF rules on Semenya have recently been validated by a 2-1 decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). They mandate that Semenya lower her testosterone levels with medication to bring them in line with the natural levels of other, non-DSD women, for international competition at certain distances. However, Semenya has continued a legal fight against the IAAF and recently achieved a victory in a Swiss court.

Continue reading “The Price of Fairness: How Many Categories of Athletes Should We Have?”

Middle-Distance Track Gets a Boost in the Eastern U.S. – Why It’s Good for Road Racing

Eastern Track League Bursts out of the Blocks

The recent formation of the Eastern Track League (ETL) out of five East Coast middle distance track and field groups is a welcome shot in the arm – er, leg? – for USA track and field across the nation.

The ETL has just launched a series of six meets to conclude with a final bearing prize money in Washington, DC on July 13, heading toward the USATF championships later in the month in Des Moines. For an overview of the series, see

You can find additional information on all five remaining meets on Road Race Management’s Online Guide to Prize Money Races.

So . . .  the prize money events in the ETL final (men’s and women’s) are only 800m, 1500m, and the 3000m steeplechase. Not long ago I lamented the IAAF dropping the 5000m and 10,000m for scoring in the Diamond League meets beginning in 2020. Now I’m cheering for middle distances on the track? How does this connect to road racing? And should it?

Continue reading “Middle-Distance Track Gets a Boost in the Eastern U.S. – Why It’s Good for Road Racing”

When Is Reporting an Infraction a “Betrayal?”

When Ashley Rollins found her Boston Qualifying time at the California International Marathon (CIM) was nullified because she was paced, she lashed out at the person who informed on her, saying the informer had betrayed her and was “mean-spirited,” “deplorable” and “cruel.”

The formal rules on pacing in a road race are pretty clear and logical. Rule #1 is the pacer must be registered in the race and participating in the event. Even if registered, the pacer cannot jump in after the start of the race. The woman who ran with Rollins at the CIM was not registered and jumped in at the halfway point. When that was reported to Marathon Investigation, the race was notified, and Rollins’s results, instead of producing a BQ, produced a DQ.

Continue reading “When Is Reporting an Infraction a “Betrayal?””

The Testosterone Controversy Concerning Female Athletes: Must It Be So Complicated?

Here’s the bare bones of the controversy centered, for the moment, on Caster Semenya, who dominates women’s middle distance running.  Semenya’s testosterone levels score in the male range. The IAAF says that constitutes an unfair advantage over other female athletes with normal testosterone levels. They have created a regulation to require that Semenya, and others like her, take medication to lower their testosterone to an approved level to qualify for international competition.  Semenya has challenged that regulation, and brought the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).  The medication regime must begin six months prior to the competition–although for the moment the IAAF has relaxed that condition, because the CAS has postponed a decision until late April, less than six months before the start of the World Championships.

Caster Semenya vs the IAAF raises a host of complex questions regarding the psychological and biological dimensions of individual gender identity and gender identification, as well as the social and cultural aspects of group identity. Today we are presented with an unprecedented range of possibilities, with the standard contrast between straight and LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transexual-Queer) being only a starting point.

It is very complex, and appreciating its complexity takes a great deal of empathy, patience, and a preparedness to have one’s unconscious biases and preconceptions challenged deeply.

But . . .

When it comes to the natural testosterone levels of women in sport, maybe it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

For a nuanced commentary on the pros and cons of the issue – what the IAAF terms “Differences in Sexual Development”regarding such athletes as Caster Semenya – read “Here’s What’s at Stake in the Caster Semenya Case” by Martin Fitz Huber in Outside magazine.

For my money, Huber puts his finger on the heart of the quandary when he says: “arguing this is a human rights issue, rather than a question of athletic fairness, is perhaps the strongest point in Semenya’s favor.” (I have emphasized “human rights issue.”)

A very strong point which I believe is decisive.

Continue reading “The Testosterone Controversy Concerning Female Athletes: Must It Be So Complicated?”

Long Distances Vanishing from the Diamond League–Who Cares?

The IAAF has dropped distances beyond 3,000 meters from its Diamond League series, beginning in 2020. The Diamond League comprises 14 track-and-field meets between May and September. Ten of the competitions are held in Europe, and one in the U.S. (the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene). The move sharply stung long-distance runners and their fans. One of the fiercest reactions came from long-distance great Haile Gebrselassie, who pointed out the shift would disproportionately affect Ethiopian and and Kenyan runners.

Chopping 5,000 and 10,000 meters from Diamond League competitions could reverberate throughout the entire running world. It is from their arena that the best marathoners have often emerged.

What’s going on? These distances have been part of the Olympics since 1912, and they have been indispensable yardsticks by which long-distance prowess is measured worldwide. These distances will be contested in the World Championships in 2019 and 2021, but cutting them from the Diamond League will curtail opportunities for the world’s best to hone their fitness and to size up their competitors and learn from them. This could erode the quality of long distance races in other venues.

What’s going on, it would seem, is a focusing on events that excite the modern TV viewer, especially the American viewer, who finds the length of races above 3000 meters boring. The Diamond League makes up a substantial chunk of NBC’s track and field coverage, and you can well imagine that many American viewers–fed a sports diet consisting largely of games emphasizing quickness and power–are turned off by the sluggish progress of races that occupy the track for one laborious lap after another after another after another. Following long-distance races may repeatedly call for cameras to cut away from explosive field events such as the high jump, long jump, triple jump, and pole vault. During the course of a meet, the high jump elicits many more “wows” than the finish of the 10,000 meters. The athleticism of pole vaulters is awesome. The long races impose large gaps between shorter races that offer more suspense per minute. What’s more, there are few Americans to be found in super-elite long distance fields consisting largely of African runners.

The bias toward speed and explosiveness is part of a general culture shift in the Instagram age, where leaders in politics, sports, entertainment, and even science broadcast their thoughts in Twitter blasts; a twelve-hour news cycle has become the norm; and multiple explosions are necessities in action movies. Internet users expect results from their web searches to pop up on the screen within microseconds. Who needs a trip to the library to look up the populations of the Middle East countries?

The 5,000 and 10,000 meters appeal primarily to traditionalists who gravitate to a slower pace of life generally–depending on culture, background, and often just age. With participation in marathons and half marathons dropping steadily, it has become apparent that many who joined the half-marathon surge several years ago have wearied of the time and energy required to keep long-distance-fit. They’ve consigned their half marathon to their bucket list—one and done. The satisfaction that comes from striding rhythmically along at one’s aerobic red line for mile after mile is enjoyed by only a few—a group to which you the reader probably belong—and it is only those few who can really appreciate what it takes to compete in a six-mile-long race.

Are we a fading breed? The organizers of the Diamond League seem to think so.

Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part II: Injustice in Host Cities

Is one Olympic host city the answer to the downsides of host city bidding?

The Olympics–who needs them? Chicago, Boston, and the state of Colorado said no thanks, as well as Hamburg and Budapest in Europe. Opposition to Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 continue to raise questions about the overall benefit of the Games to host cities, when economic growth for private profit  is pitted against the socioeconomic good of the public at large.

For starters, the economic argument has long been controversial in itself.  In a paper in The Sport Journal, the authors concluded that “The Benefits of Bidding and Hosting the Olympic Games Are Difficult to Justify Due to the Overall Costs” (see Analysis of costs of hosting Olympics). Andrew Zimbalist’s 2015 book, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, identified the 1970s as the turning point when the payoff for gambling on Olympic hosting began to drop below break-even. Zimbalist, a sports economist, used four case studies–Barcelona, Sochi, Rio, and London–to support his thesis that the costs of modern Olympic extravaganzas outrun tangible economic benefits in most cities.  Los Angeles’s success in 1984 owed in part to the use of existing infrastructure rather than having to build all new facilities.

An article from the Council on Foreign Relations has a revealing graph illustrating the discrepancies between projected and final costs in eleven cities from 1996 through 2016. In most cases the final cost more than doubled the original estimate. So-called white elephants such as Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium incur maintenance costs that linger long after the initial construction – the “Bird’s Nest” costs $10 million a year to maintain and sits mostly unused. See Council on Foreign Relations addresses costs of Olympic Games.

Continue reading “Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part II: Injustice in Host Cities”

Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part I: Russian Doping Scandal

Laxity on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) toward performance-enhancing drugs is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of state-sponsored doping by Russia. It’s a long and twisted tale going back decades, but the McLaren Report, issued in 2016, made glaringly clear the massive doping of Russian athletes in many sports, particularly at the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Last September, WADA lifted the suspension of the Russian national team, in a good-faith gesture intended to get cooperation from the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) to submit data and samples for WADA’s inspection. At this moment in mid-February 2019, the suspension remains lifted, despite:

  • RUSADA’s failure to provide data and samples by the December 31st date stipulated by WADA as being in compliance;
  • Now that, as of mid-January, the data and samples are finally in WADA’s possession, they have not yet been authenticated, a task expected to take months;
  • Russia has not admitted to state-sponsored doping, one of the conditions originally called for in order to put RUSADA in compliance and reinstate Russian athletes as part of a national team.

What part does the IOC play in this? Continue reading “Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part I: Russian Doping Scandal”

Cheating: Worth the Risk?

Cheating at the top, maybe.

For elite athletes, the temptation of many incentives in combination is hard to resist, especially when you realize how many competitors are cheating – you are trying to compensate for a disadvantage.

Cheating among elite athletes is rife.  If you didn’t know how rife, consider a study that appeared in Sports Medicine in January 2018 on the prevalence of doping in athletics. It yielded a troubling result: a survey of 2,167 elite athletes at two different games found a prevalence of 43.6% in one and 57.1% in the other during the prior year, when the respondents were guaranteed anonymity. (For statistics fans, the 95% confidence interval was 39.4-47.9 at the first and 52.4-61.8 at the other.) You can find an abstract of the study at  The researchers concluded that “doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes, and remains largely unchecked despite current biological testing.”

Evidently the cost to the athletes is low enough that a high percentage of them are willing to take the risk of getting caught. In addition, punishments even for those who are caught are so lenient they fail to create a strong deterrent.

Cheating, per this study, occurs among elites at a rate (as much as 57%!?) that surprised me.  Then, I considered the incentives, both tangible (in the form of prize money, appearance money, sponsorship and product endorsements), and intangible.

Intangibles take many forms: recognition, respect, renown, admiration, awe, and even fame. At a group level (team, school, community, region, nation), the gratitude of the group plays a significant part. Just qualifying for acceptance into some group such as a national team figures in the calculation of whether to cheat. Taken together, these incentives add up to a powerful temptation. The numbers discovered by the study referred to above suggest just how powerful.  Continue reading “Cheating: Worth the Risk?”

Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?

Commenting on Kenenisa Bekele’s win in the December 2017 running of the Tata Kolkata 25K, Bekele’s elite coach Jos Hermens was asked if perhaps the 25K and 30K distances should be run more often. Hermens said, “I think the 25 or 30K are extremely interesting, as only full and half marathon is quite boring and always concentrating on times. In the case of the 25K or 30K and also 15K or 10 miles or even 20K, there might of should be less emphasis on times, but more on racing!”

Music to my ears! “Only full and half marathon is quite boring,” absolutely. Over the years, I have been repeatedly disappointed by conversions of all those distances—especially 20K, when I was still racing—to half marathons.

Half marathons are everywhere! There are at least two national calendars that post nothing but half marathons! Since I post prize money races to Road Race Management’s Online Guide to Prize Money Races and Elite Athletes, I am almighty tired of constantly adding half marathons to the list.


Continue reading “Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?”

Numbers Game: Road Race Rankings and Their Implications

Do Rankings of Races Matter?

Listings of Top 10 or Top 20 somethings can be fun to debate over a few beers: ten best quarterbacks of all time, ten best vacation spots, ten greatest rock songs, ten greatest movies, and so on. That includes footraces—road, trail, track, and now, mud.  Often these ratings are done by panels of “experts,” whose qualifications consist mainly of a lot of experience in the field, such as journalists, trainers, coaches, and the like.  Experience counts, but the subjectivity involved means that most of us are inclined to take these rankings with a grain or two of salt.

But does it really matter whether your race makes the cut to be considered?  Or, if you make the cut, where it ranks?

It does matter—if not to you personally, then to runners, the media, expo vendors, the semi-clueless nonrunning public, and, perhaps most importantly, the sponsors.  If you can put the “Top Twenty Best Marathons” feather in your cap, you might be able to loosen the wallets of those for whom prestige and name recognition are the deciding factors in choosing what event to support.

So, when a service comes along claiming to have compiled the definitive list of the Best Races in America,” and alleges to have built its ratings from actual participant votes, what do you make of it? Shrug it off as typical hype? What if their claim made the pages of Running USA’s online newsletter? Would you take a closer look?

Thinking it’s worth a closer look, I’ve toiled through a lot of detail below concerning the service claiming to have constructed the “definitive list.” Consider it an exercise in what we used to jocularly call LSD—Long Slow Distance (in running, a training fad that had its day before we discovered that mostly slow in training meant mostly slow in racing).

Does “definitive” mean definitive, or something a little more open-ended?

I’m Old School with the English language, which starts with pinning down what words mean as precisely as possible. (I mean in nonfiction, since we rightly give great flexibility to fiction writers.) Here’s the first definition of “definitive” from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “Having the function or character of finality; decisive, conclusive, final; definite, fixed, finally settled, unconditional.”

Wow! Final! Unconditional! So, when someone asserts they have created a “definitive” list for public consumption, I consider that an extraordinary claim, and, as Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

If you think I’m too much into semantic quibbling, stay with me for a few more paragraphs. I think you’ll see that even when we soften the connotation of “definitive” to something more like “highly representative,” there are problems with the list we’re talking about.

To name names: BibRave, and the “definitive list,” the BibRave 100

A writeup in Endurance Sportswire announcing the awards ceremony for the BibRave 100 list (it was December 1st), calls BibRave “the new marketing solution for races and endurance brands.”

I’m confused. The outfit that is compiling the list is also marketing races? It’s key even to get considered for the ranking to get a large number of nominations.  Unless I’m mistaken, there’s a conflict of interest here.  For example, what better way to market a race than to encourage it to get a boatload of nominations for the BibRave 100?

Let’s go up the ladder you need just to make the list and get ranked, as follows.

Getting to the Bottom Rung: Nominations. Scads of them.

For starters, you have to get heaps of nominations even to get considered. How many? You know there’s a cut, numbers-wise, because it says in the FAQ: If your race isn’t on the list, it’s because not enough people nominated it for consideration.”

Enough can’t be known until the nominations period closes.

What “people” are making the nominations? Answer, also on the FAQ: “Anyone! [exclamation point theirs] can nominate a race” by completing a form on the website for as many races as they want, although not any one race more than once.

Are they kidding?  If “anyone!” means anyone, then a monk on a mountainside in the Himalayas could make a nomination, assuming he had access to the internet. So could a Russian oligarch, a deep-sea fisherman, or a bank robber (probably runs). So might your family and friends, and their friends—you can see where this is going. You don’t even have to create a chain email, you can find someone to post to a social media platform how deserving your race is for nominations. There’s no ceiling on the number of nominations a race with good marketing savvy could get.

You might get thwarted in places by some wet blankets reluctant to game the system, but there’s nothing in the rules to stop it.

Sheer numbers in the nominations process can work for you—or not, if you believe you should police yourself.  You might honor an implicit honors system, but who else will?

I’d bet that few readers of this blog would resort to pumping up their numbers by recruiting just “anyone” for a nomination.  But there’s no rule that disallows it. The point is not that a lot of races would try to jack up their nomination numbers to ludicrous proportions, but that there’s no way to qualify nominators, and there’s no way to know in advance how many nominations will make the cut.  It’s a public relations free-for-all.

Second Rung: a “Running Industry survey score.”

Suppose you meet the magic quota for number of nominations. What’s next? Per the FAQ: “The most nominated races will then be rated based on a Running Industry survey score, which will be combined with a general runner vote.”

What’s the “Running Industry survey score?” It’s a little vague, but there’s a clue in the description of “The Running Industry Collective.” That is: “Folks from across the running industry – running store retailers, race directors (BibRave clients and non-clients alike), race service providers (bib makers, chip timers, medal companies, t-shirt companies, registration companies, etc.), running brands, and more.”

What’s that? “BibRave clients and non-clients alike?” Ping! That’s the sound of touching the second tripwire for conflict of interest. The service (BibRave) that is compiling the list has clients and prospective clients in the bunch that is evaluating the candidate races.

Third Rung: “a general runner vote.”

It’s not quite clear if it is a poll of “general runners,” or a “general” poll of ordinary runners. It’s so vague it doesn’t make much difference, so we’ll settle on “general runner.” If you know what a “general runner” is, you are, if not omniscient, a far more acute observer of the road racing scene than I am. My guess: the “general runners” are from the BibRave community, a network of runners who exchange information on races. If so, it is a self-selected sample, and any statistician will tell you that a self-selected sample is probably not representative of a population, in this case the population of participants in all road races in America. That’s even if the sample consists of those with more than one race under their belt who talk to each other online, as you’d expect of the BibRave community. But until we have specifics as to what a “general runner” is, we really can’t know.

At this point, we seem to have moved away from the concept of “definitive” to—what? How about “highly representative of runner opinion?”

Are the Top Picks Representative? Let’s Take a Look

BibRave divided the rankings into four categories by distance: Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K, and 5K, and apologized for omitting other distances. There are so many races! Indeed.

Therefore, they’ve left out some of the most popular and prestigious races in America, all of which sell out and/or have lotteries. Here are some that immediately sprang to mind, listed in alphabetical order: Alaska Airlines Bay to Breakers 12K; Blue Cross Broad Street Run 10 Mile; Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile; Gate River Run 15K; Lilac Bloomsday 12K; Manchester Road Race 4.78 Mile; New Balance Falmouth Road Race 7 Mile; Utica Boilermaker 15K; Wharf to Wharf 6 Mile.

I’d think a “definitive” list of all races in the USA would have a few of those. They could have a special category: “other distances from 4.78 miles to 15K.” Would that be so hard?


But let’s give BibRave a shot with the four distances they have chosen.  I looked most closely at the marathon list (top 20, with the first 5 ranked and the rest in alphabetical order—good call there!). There are twenty marathons listed, which include those you’d expect to rise to the top: Bank of America Chicago, Boston, California International, Medtronic Twin Cities, TCS New York City.


The Missoula Marathon, in Missoula, MT, tops the list. It usually has a field of about 850 runners. This seems counter-intuitive, since most of the races are in or near big cities and have large turnouts. Say that 3% of runners in Boston would vote for it as best marathon: that comes to about 900 votes.  For Missoula to get as many votes, it would have to get more than 100%. A similar ratio (3% vs 100%) would roughly apply to account for all the runners who have participated in either event over, say, ten years. It sounds as if “general runner” might include folks who have never run in these races—the BibRave community, having heard of the race second-hand, could account of a lot of those.

Maybe the poll is comparing proportions of votes to the size of the race. That sounds fair. If Missoula got 425 votes out of a size of 850, then they’d have a percentage of 50%, and you wouldn’t expect Boston to come anywhere near that. (The same goes for the expanded pool—i.e. all runners in both events in the last ten years.)

There’s no doubt that Missoula is an excellent race.  It was once named as the top marathon in the USA by Runner’s World. If you go online to, you’ll see it gets five stars overall, and heaps of glowing runner reviews. If a third party with no stake in the results were brought in to rank the races (not gonna happen), Missoula might very well earn top spot.

As it stands, we’d like to know more about the methodology, the absolute numbers, the percentages, and the sample (i.e. “general runners”) to give credence to this survey. I went down the list and found a few outliers similar to Missoula, but I don’t want to get that deep into the weeds here.

Nominations in the “THOUSANDS.”  From where?

You might wonder where all the nominations for Missoula came from. The BibRave website says Missoula got “THOUSANDS” of nominations—how many, it doesn’t say, but you can interpret upper case THOUSANDS as meaning, lots. If you got half the runners who have run Missoula within the last five years, you’d get .5 x 850 x 5 = 2,125. That’s as if repeaters didn’t exist—that is, a fresh field every year. With the repeaters you’d expect from such a fine race, that number might get cut in half. Without repeaters (the larger number), then you’ve got “THOUSANDS”—as long as you call barely 2,000 THOUSANDS.

So many nominations come from an expanded pool of everyone who has ever heard of the Missoula Marathon.

But there’s a simpler explanation. There are two big clues as to how Missoula made the nominations cut—whatever it was.

Clue Number One: As we’ve seen, “Anyone!” can send in a nomination.

Clue Number Two is BibRave’s description of the winner: it stresses community, and how local runners wrote in about “how this event has changed their community, inspiring thousands to become active.”

Missoula has a population of 72,000.  Put together Clue One and Clue Two and you don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to pretty confidently infer where THOUSANDS of nominations came from.

Also, as to the voting on candidate races, we are not given just how many “general runners” voted for what. Why is BibRave so silent on the actual numbers?

Is it really as bad as I’m making it out to be? Maybe not, but it’s not transparent, and not fair

My assessment of the BibRave lists is pretty harsh. Maybe too much so. I’ve grown cantankerous at age 71, and inclined to scoff at overblown claims, where it appears that marketing generates a lot of hoopla without necessarily a lot of substance. Having taken a statistics course and learned additional stats tricks on my own, I know that the first questions you ask about a claim involving statistics are, what is the methodology, and what is the sample? If you don’t even know the raw numbers, much less the methodology and the sample, you don’t know much.

I do concede that BibRave is an interesting and valuable contribution to the running scene. I give them credit for trying to build a tool that can help runners discuss and choose their races worldwide and instantaneously, or even just argue about them for fun. But we can say their list is not a “definitive” picture of the best road races in the USA.  It excludes a number of wildly popular races because they’re the wrong distance. Not to say that they are acting in bad faith, but there are too many uncertainties in the method and the sample to give the list solid credence.

Or even much credence. I happen to know that one of the most inarguably successful half marathons did not even make the top 20 half marathon list. (I admit to bias, but not to being wrong.)

BTW, if you make the list you get an emblem to put on your website, sort of like an EnergyStar label. The difference is that EnergyStar uses actual, lab-tested numbers.

Once more, the nominations and their implications for a race’s image

First, there are no qualifications asked of nominators—so long as “anyone” means anyone.

Next, lack of transparency: if your race misses out on consideration because your nominations fall below an unknown threshold, just too bad. You could have the best race in the world, but if you don’t find a way to generate big nomination numbers, you don’t even get to the first rung of the ladder.

What do you tell prospective sponsors who may also be considering a race across town that takes place the preceding weekend, when the other race makes the cut, and you don’t? All because you didn’t play the nominations game cleverly enough–a game that may have little to do with the quality of your event. A listing can make a splash with local media (one of the best races in America!), raising the profile of the event and pleasing sponsors even more.

This is mainly a problem for small races, where a sponsor can make the difference between continuing the event at all, or not. My opinion is, that the BibRave rating system closes off options for many of these races.

I don’t have a last word here.  Anyway, you may have already had your fill.

Thanks for completing this marathon post.