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.

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