Pretty obvious from these great postings thus far that we have a hard time placing athletes like Jim Ryun and Steve Prefontaine in the right context.
So I propose the following question: Who are athletes whose "star status" in the sport transcended their stats?
In America, Prefontaine is one. So are Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Marty Liquori. Bruce Jenner, Brian Oldfield, Dwight Stones. Charley Paddock from an earlier era. Glenn Cunningham certainly. Bob Richards. John Carlos. Martin McGrady.
Admittedly, this is more of a Charisma vs. Career Stats listing. But, hey, T&F could use more charisma.
>I propose the following question:
>Who are athletes whose "star status" in the
>sport transcended their stats? Admittedly, this is more of a
>Charisma vs. Career Stats listing. But, hey, T&F
>could use more charisma.
Outside of the U.S., the two that I know a lot about are Kip Keino and Abebe Bikila. Keino is known; he remains a legendary figure in Kenya by raising hundreds of orphaned and neglected children. His style of competition personified Nandi masculinity so perfectly that he is a significant part of why they now dominate the sport so totally. In 1965, Mel Watman of Athletics Weekly called him "the world's most exciting athlete".
Bikila became so popular in Ethiopia that there was a rumor that Emporor Haile Selassie arranged the 1969 auto accident that paralyzed him. You probably know that Bikila made his decisive move in the Rome Olympic marathon at an obelisk stolen from Ethiopia during the Italian occupation. You probably don't know the depth of resentment the Ethiopians felt towards the Italians, or the nationalistic and religious importance of that obelisk -- which the Italians agreed to return to Ethiopia in their 1947 U.N. peace treaty, but still stands in Rome today. (Read Graham Hancock's "The Sign and the Seal" to get the full picture.) If you doubt the political importance of Bikila's action, note that nearly the only accounts of the race which ignore it are Bud Greenspan's films, which also ignore the Black Power salute, the 1972 murders, and barely mention boycotts.
The Penn Relays has brought in people specifically for the purpose of selling tickets in various years, that is stars who themselves wouldn't normally have competed at Penn, nor would their schools: Paddock '28, Nurmi '29, Cunningham '34, '38; Hagg '45, Bannister '51, Gutowski '59, Morrow/Norton/Sime plus Thomas & Bragg '60, Sternberg '63, Hayes '64, Carlos '70, Waldrop '74. Those are just off the top of my head.
Then there was 1936 with Owens and Peacock. Both were with their regularly-participating Ohio State and Temple teams, but signals got crossed. Owens ran the individual events (won the 100m and LJ and ran a leg on winning SMR), Peacock ran the relays.
>Interesting. Thanks jsquire I'd never heard that
>about Bikila before.
I just finished a Folk Cultures grad class, and my final 20-page paper was on the cultural basis for Kenyan and Ethiopians men using distance racing as a mode of group identification. I almost felt guitly when I turned the paper in -- isn't work supposed to be something you dislike?
Your knowledge and admiration of African runners is admirable. Slowly, you are persuading at least me of Keino's lasting greatness . . . although not yet at the expense of Ryun! Your details on Bikila's victory in Rome are amazing, illuminating, inspiring and very cool.
Your knowledge and admiration
>of African runners is admirable. Slowly, you are
>persuading at least me of Keino's lasting
>greatness . . . although not yet at the expense
>of Ryun! Your details on Bikila's victory in
>Rome are amazing, illuminating, inspiring and
Thanks. I think this is all just fun, and I still can't believe I can get grad credit for it.
I learned a lot about the African runners while researching my paper. I also learned a lot about the assumptions that Americans and Europeans act on when trying to "explain" the success of the Kenyans and Ethiopians (as if an explanation is required.) I explored not only those two groups, which are clearly different, but the pre-WWII Finnish runners that were totally dominant as well.
In all three cases, outsiders look at genetics, environmental factors, and training patterns while totally ignoring any possibility that culture may play a significant role. Most telling was a calculation that Dr. Tim Noakes referred to in the latest edition of "Lore of Running" -- that looking at past success relative to population, it was said that a Kalenjin runner is 2600 times as likely to win an Olympic medal as an American runner.
This calculation is based on the tenuous assumption that all athletes with both the physical and attitudinal tools required to be a good distance runner actually pursue the sport. In the Rift Valley, this is clearly true. In the USA it is not. Besides running, Americans with distance-running potential can choose cycling, swimming, triathlon, cross country skiing, or can simply be a pretty darned good high school athlete in any of a number of sports. Americans with highly competitive attitudes can also choose to pursue law, politics, or business. For example, Marla Runyan only recently came into marathoning from other track (and field) events -- how many others like her are there in the USA? And they tell me that in high school, Lance Armstrong was almost as good a runner as a cyclist. There are no Kenyans any good at any endurance sport besides running.
Within the Nandi, the dominant running group in Kenya, distance running plays the same type of role for adolescent males as football does in the USA. It defines masculinity for that culture, nearly every boy thinks about competing at some point, and those who do compete take it fairly seriously.