SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Are the mile prospects playing soccer? Did affluence soften the marathoners?
The causes of the symptoms might be fuzzy, based as much on anecdotal evidence as fact, but the diagnosis is clear: Men's distance running in the United States is in critical condition. From the Rift Valley to both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, Africans and Europeans have established a swifter pace that has left the Americans behind.
In the six Olympic running events longer than a lap around a 400-meter track, the United States did not have a single man among the top 10 in the 1999 world rankings compiled by Track & Field News. From the 800 meters to the marathon, the U.S. men will probably not be a factor at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
A physiologist would point to the high altitude that improves the aerobic capacity of Kenyans, Ethiopians and men from other nations situated along the Rift Valley in Africa.
An economist would weigh global forces. Athletes don't represent nations anymore, but corporations, and Nike is as interested in its runners in Nairobi as it is in the ones it funds in Los Angeles.
A sociologist would consider the American lifestyle, which has created sedentary generations and caused the President's Council on Physical Fitness to dumb down its requirements.
There is no great gulf separating American women from the rest of the world. Though there are Islamic nations such as Algeria that frown on women participating in sports, in the United States, Title IX - the federal law that mandates equal opportunities in sports - has created more college track scholarships for women than men.
Whatever the reasons, the United States longs for the days when it wasn't hard to find a male distance running star.
Once upon a time in America, the nation produced the world's best distance runners.
Billy Mills and Bob Schul won the 5,000 and 10,000, respectively, at the 1964 Olympics. That same year, Jim Ryun became the first high schooler to break four minutes in the mile, and soon after he was the world-record holder.
Those men inspired the Class of '72, which left the high-water mark for American men in international competition.
The Munich Olympics in 1972 closed with a Frank Shorter victory in the marathon. Dave Wottle won the gold medal in the 800, but teen-agers were more apt to emulate the fourth-place finisher in the 5,000. Steve Prefontaine was equal parts James Dean and Tiger Woods, a rebellious workaholic who might have been the greatest distance talent the United States has ever seen.
Prefontaine died in an auto accident in 1975, and American fortunes seemed to go with him. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics denied role models to an ensuing group of young men. While Americans discovered soccer, the rest of the world began to lap the U.S. team on the track.
"In 1979, I was the sixth-fastest miler ever," said Craig Masback, who clocked a 3:52.02 that year. "Two years later, seven men broke 3:51 in one race. That's progress, and that's what's great about our sport. That development had as much to do with more men from Kenya and other countries being identified and developed as with anything that happened here."
Masback is the chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, the governing body that is seeking ways to expand the sport's visibility beyond the Olympics and the Olympic trials that are being conducted here.
When American men ruled Olympic distance running in '72, Masback was a high school senior. Soccer was still a niche sport, to the extent that a little parish in East Baltimore, St. Elizabeth's, could help stock two NCAA championship teams, at the University of Baltimore and Loyola College.
Now, from Seattle to Tampa and Los Angeles to Columbia, boys who can run all day gravitate toward soccer. Yet Masback and a veteran area coach insist that soccer is not the enemy.
No couch potatoes
"If anything, soccer has helped distance running," said Jim Shank, the track coach at Westminster High, who makes his living operating an indoor soccer barn in Carroll County. "Not everyone sticks with that game, and if you don't make your high school team, you've done a lot of running that's helped your stamina and speed. That's certainly better than being a couch potato."
Couch potatoes do not last long with Shank.
This spring, he got Jesse O'Connell down to 1:51.67 in the 800, one of the best times ever by an area boy. In 1979, one of Shank's stars was involved in the best distance race ever staged in Maryland. The Owls' Karsten Shulz and Kenwood's Mike Sheely both ran under 4:12 in the mile - and lost in the state 4A meet to Laurel's Wayne Morris.
They were the last area boys to mount a serious attempt at the area record of 4:10 that Dulaney's Bob Wheeler established 30 years ago. Since that epic 4A race in 1979, only a handful of area boys have gone under 4:17 in the mile or its slightly shorter metric version, the 1,600. Times have changed, because, well, times have changed.
"The big thing in training 20 and 30 years ago was mileage," Shank said. "One summer, Shulz had 13 weeks where he ran 100 miles or more. I don't think Jesse [O'Connell] has ever run more than 40 miles a week. The knock on all that mileage was that it was tough on kids and that they broke down, but the fact is that they just worked harder then."
Fact is, they also had fewer diversions.
There's probably a dearth of top American distance runners for some of the same reasons baseball observers cite when they lament the lack of healthy pitching arms. Children participate in more organized games, but they don't seem to play catch as much as their predecessors. Why would a suburban kid play pickup basketball when he can play Steve Francis in a computer game?
"This is not just a track problem," Masback said. "But for the occasional [cyclist] Lance Armstrong, the U.S. typically lags far behind in the endurance events, like cross country skiing and long-distance swimming."
A new wave
Track and field fans eye a strong crop of high school talent that could make the United States a player in middle- and long-distance running again in the new millennium.
Alan Webb of Reston, Va., gained notice this spring for his attack on the four-minute mile as a high school junior. Donald Sage of Illinois ran three seconds faster and came achingly close, with a best of 4:00.29.
The United States has not had a high schooler under four minutes since Marty Liquori in 1967. His obsession was such that he wouldn't go to the movies, fearing the air conditioning would weaken his muscles. That kind of single-mindedness is probably more prevalent in less developed nations.
Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian who has altered the face of the 5,000 and 10,000, used to have a crook in his left arm, because that's where he carried his books as he ran six miles to school and six miles home. Peter Rono was just another prospect in Kenya when he came to Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, and was still a relative unknown when he won the Olympic 1,500 in 1988.
"Compared to the Kenyans, our cardiovascular development is far in arrears," said Jim Deegan, the longtime coach at the Mount. "It's basically a lifestyle issue. They're not in cars. They don't have cars. They run and walk everywhere."
There was a thrilling 10,000 run here Friday night. After his victory, Mebrahtom Keflezighi waived flags from the United States and Eritrea, the African nation where he was born. The third-place finisher was recruited by Arizona out of Somalia.
There was more excitement over the 1,500. Winner Gabe Jennings is only 21, and is it a coincidence that he grew up in remote northern California without indoor plumbing and a television? His parents appear to be aging Deadheads; his upbringing provided a Spartan environment that surely helped his development as a runner.
Bob Kennedy, the one American capable of testing the world's best in the 5,000 over the last decade, trained with Kenyans to get a feel for the way they approach running.
Dr. Gabrielle Rosa, an Italian, has spent years in Kenya testing and coaching men and women in Discovery Kenya, a program funded by Fila, the Sparks-based athletic apparel company. Now Fila is launching Discovery USA because Rosa has identified Americans whose long-distance potential isn't being fully tapped.
In a few weeks, Fila will bring those athletes to 6,000-foot Laguna Mountain, east of San Diego, for its first Discovery USA training camp.
"This is not the only way," Rosa said, "but this way has worked for my athletes."
Last year, six of the world's top 10 ranked marathoners came from Kenya. In May, the U.S. trial in Pittsburgh was so slow that only winner Rod DeHaven will go to the Olympics. DeHaven, who grew up in South Dakota and drove a cab and picked strawberries to keep his dream alive, said internal factors are more crucial to a distance runner than external ones.
"Bill Rodgers never lived at altitude," DeHaven said about the marathoner who was one of his early influences. "It's more about dedication to the sport."
A comparison of the men's world and American records in assorted events longer than 400 meters.
Event Runner Time Year
800 Wilson Kipketer, Denmark 1:41.11 1997
Johnny Gray, U.S. 1:42.60 1985
1,500 Hicham el Guerrouj, Morocco 3:26.00 1998
Sydney Maree, U.S. 3:29.77 1985
Mile Hicham el Guerrouj, Morocco 3:43.13 1999
Steve Scott, U.S. 3:47.69 1982
3,000 Bernard Barmasai, Kenya 7:55.72 1997
steeplechase Henry Marsh, U.S. 8:09.17 1985
5,000 Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia 12:39.36 1998
Bob Kennedy, U.S. 12:58.21 1996
10,000 Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia 26:22.75 1998
Mark Nenow, U.S. 27:20.56 1986
Marathon Khalid Khannouchi, Morocco 2:05.42 1999
David Morris, U.S. 2:09.32 1999
Note: Khannouchi is now an American citizen Source: USA Track and Field