Chicago, USAThe late Fred Lebow, who transformed the ING New York City Marathon from a small race run inside Central Park to one of the world's premier marathons, used to say of his race that it did not need champions, his race made champions.
Deena becomes part of the family
The New York City Marathon provided the stage which distance runners could use to transform their careers. LaSalle Banks Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski believes that his race has established itself within the running community, and the challenge that his organisation faces is to become just as popular with the non-running community, the spectators and citizens of Chicago, the US, and the world.
One way to reach the general public is through sports stars, athletes who are often recognised by one name - from Pele to Paula - and this year in Chicago that one name was Deena.
Deena Kastor is not quite at the level of Paula Radcliffe or the other top name stars, but is on her way to sports stardom in the US, building upon her bronze medal performance in the marathon at the Athens Olympics and two US records on the roads this year. In April, she broke the US 8K mark at the Shamrock Shuffle in Chicago a week after winning the US title at that distance in New York. In September Kastor broke another of 1984 Olympic Marathon champion, Joan Benoit Samuelson's long-standing records, this one for the half marathon, in the Philadelphia Distance Run. This past Sunday, Kastor attempted to take another step toward stardom at the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon.
"When you are a champion here at the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon," said Pinkowski. "You become part of our family."
Past champions, such as Khalid Khannouchi, are recognised within the community, he said. The spectators along the marathon route know them, often cheering for them by name during the race. By virtue of her bronze medal performance in Athens, Kastor was already the most recognised female distance runner in the USA. So, even before she won this year's race, Pinkowski began the process of selling Kastor to the Chicago citizens. He invited her to run and go for the 8K record in April at the Shamrock Shuffle, a race also sponsored by LaSalle Banks and put on by the same core group that administers the marathon. Then he brought her back in July where she filmed promotional material for the race's television partner, CBS2, which broadcast the race to the Chicago area and made its coverage available to Eurosport and Japanese TV.
Building the brand
Kastor also participated in another time honoured sports tradition in the US, throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game. Chicago has two teams, the White Sox and the Cubs. The Sox are currently in midst of playoff competition for a place in American baseball's "World Series," where the champion of US professional baseball is crowned. Kastor threw out the first pitch at both a Sox and a Cubs game, exposing her to another set of sports fans in the city and beyond. These and other promotional appearances are part of a strategy to not only expose the top runners to a larger audience, but to build the "brand" of the sport not only in Chicago but around the world.
The Big Five
The ‘Big Five Marathons’ - those run in New York, London, Boston, Chicago, and Berlin - have joined together in exploring ways to expose their events and the sport to more fans throughout the year.
The attention attracted by each of the Big Five Marathons in their communities, their countries, and throughout the world only lasts one week at most. By joining together and exploring how they can help one another and the sport, the race directors of these events hope to uplift the profile of the sport to more than five weeks a year. Other major sports have seasons, championship series, and playoff systems for determining an overall champion, such as the US baseball World Series. Athletics currently has the Olympics every four years and the IAAF World Championships in Athletics every other year. The yearly outdoor Athletics season begins with the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in March, goes through the TDK Golden League and other IAAF permit meetings during the summer, culminating in the World Athletics Final in September. Then, for the past 14 years, the season has been topped off with an IAAF World Half Marathon Championship.
That will be changed next year to become the IAAF World Road Running Championship, but, outside of the marathon at the Athletics World Championships, it is the only road race on the IAAF circuit.
The world wide road racing circuit has grown outside of the circuit and one can find professional road racing events somewhere in the world every weekend year round. However, until the Big Five joined together formally this year, none of the races had attempted to organise both locally and globally in an effort to popularise and grow the sport. Back in the 1980s a group of athletes and race directors formed the Association of Road Racing Athletes, which was instrumental in taking the sport professional with the open awarding of prize money in events. That group has now morphed into the PRRO circuit, comprised of five races in North America.
The Big Five have talked of making an attempt to promote a form of Grand Slam for their events. Just like in tennis or golf, the athlete winning all five of their events would have achieved a Grand Slam of road running. The New York Road Runners, who put on the ING New York City Marathon, has explored the possibility of hosting an IAAF World Championship event in road racing. They already hosted the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 1984. Thus far, however, their greatest contribution to the sport has been, as Lebow recognised, being a stage on which future champions could emerge or established stars could add to their accomplishments. To make this work, and for the sport to grow in impact and popularity in a crowded entertainment/sports marketplace, both the athletes and the events have to work together.
"Just try and catch me"
Both Kastor and Pinkowski realised this when they sat down to do the television commercials this summer in Chicago. Their intent was to take an American athlete who had already achieved a certain level of notoriety because of her accomplishments in Athens, build on that and promote both her career and the visibility of the marathon. The script called for Kastor to "trash talk" like a sprinter: "Just try and catch me," she said. She laughs when recalling the experience as it was her first adventure in the world of television commercials and full makeup. "Trash talking with my face caked with make up," is how she remembered the experience. But the spots ran regularly during the build up to the race and from the number of times she heard her name called by spectators during the course of the race may well have had the intended impact of raising her profile within the non-running community.
Kastor also did a number of media interviews leading up to the race and was open about her desire to not only win her first marathon, but to run an American record and break the 2:20 barrier. Often athletes avoid making such bold statements of their intentions because they don't want to sound overconfident or risk criticism if they fail to achieve their goals. But, as she noted in the post race press conference: "In order for great things to happen, you have to take risks." That goes for race promotions as well because one doesn't attract much fan attention by saying that you'll merely be doing your best or that you hope to win. The risk, of course, is that if all you do is merely win the race and not deliver on the rest of your intended goals that instead of being recognised as a champion, you'll be branded a winner who "failed."
How a ‘bittersweet’ media star charmed her audience
It was here that Kastor proved she is not only a talented runner, but she is a media star as well. While some athletes would display their disappointment at not achieving all their goals or make excuses. Kastor faced the media with a smile, candor, and an upbeat assessment of her performance. The victory was "bittersweet," she declared at the opening of the press conference, but that didn't detract from the sense of accomplishment she had from finally winning what she considers her best event, the marathon.
She described in graphic detail how humbling the event can be, noting how surreal an experience it is to have most of your body feeling perfectly fine accept from the waist down your leg and foot muscles are tightening up and aching and won't respond to the messages from the brain to go faster. Nearly anyone who has ever run the distance or watched others do it could empathize with what she went through.
She joked. She charmed her audience, and left the dais a champion both on and off the athletic field. Kastor demonstrated that being a champion in today's sportsworld involves not only athletic prowess, but salesmanship and being savvy enough to understand how to act on the stage once you've earned the right to be up there.
Jim Ferstle for the IAAF