The debate has raged almost since Spiridon Louis won the inaugural event in in 1896: Is the Olympic Marathon the ultimate test of a true marathon runner? There are no pacemakers. There are no appearance fees. There are no time bonuses. The courses are seldom flat and fast. There is only the podium, and an athlete who drops out or fares poorly has to wait four years for another chance to run for the glory of his or her country. But the distance is still 26.2 miles, and with the fields limited to three athletes per country, some of the top marathon runners in the world have to stay home. Have big-city races taken over? Going Head to Head on the topic are Neil Amdur, former sports editor of The New York Times, and Dick Patrick, former Olympics writer for USA Today.
Neil Amdur: If the "ultimate test" in any sport is immortality, then the Olympic Marathon stands alone. Mention Abebe Bikila and few would recognize anything he achieved outside of his consecutive Olympic Marathon titles in 1960 and 1964, especially his barefoot romp in Rome. The same is true of Frank Shorter's memorable marathon victory in Munich or Joan Benoit Samuelson's historic initial women's marathon at Los Angeles in 1984. They stand the test of time. The fact that the marathon as an international event has changed so dramatically in recent decades with citywide excursions, prize money, and casts of thousands sometimes can obscure an Olympic marathon that is part of a full track and field program. But I think Bill Rodgers would easily trade a few of his Boston and New York City Marathon titles for one Olympic gold medal.
Dick Patrick: Let’s hope the Olympic Marathon never becomes irrelevant. The race, as you note, has provided great moments over the years. But the era of the Olympic Marathon as the ultimate test is as much the past as technical fabrics have made cotton uniforms obsolete. The marathon is in the midst of a revolution, thanks in large measure to the World Marathon Majors and the money New York, Boston, Chicago, and Berlin have brought to the event. Last year there were 48 runners who broke 2:08, 35 of them Kenyan. The Olympics restricts countries to three entries, which means dozens of top Kenyans won’t be in the race. Those other Kenyans will be in the big-city marathons. The quality of fields and the conditions—not hot and humid as for most Olympic marathons—make the major marathons more competitive than the Olympics.
NA: Marathons aren't always about fast times. Some of the races you remember are those where tactics, surges, and just plain guts prevail. Alberto Salazar's New York City Marathon victory [WHICH ONE?] was a classic. The Kenyans have made great contributions to marathoning, as have other African runners. But Olympic marathons have a tactical edginess to them that often makes the final time secondary to that gold medal.
DP: Here’s a moment that’s indelible in my mind. Late in the 2002 London Marathon, Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, and Khalid Khannouchi were dueling. The best track runner, the best cross country runner, and the best marathoner, respectively, trading surges and utilizing their strengths. What a moment. I wish I had a poster of the three of them abreast. Khannouchi, the native of Morocco turned American, not only won but broke his world record (2:05:38). I don’t know if you could ever get a mix like that—field, weather—in an Olympic marathon. The big-city marathons have taken over the event.
NA: One race does not make an event. London and Boston and New York have created their share of indelible memories and heroes over the years, in part because they get four cracks to only one Olympic marathon in the cycle. Which is why we cherish Grete Waitz so fondly for her astonishing nine New York City titles. And all of these city races do such a commendable job of promoting their stars and have the massive public participation; the Olympic marathon has a smaller field of qualifiers and usually is a slower, tactical race because the big prize is more about immortality than money. I would love to poll the top marathoners, men and women, and simply ask, "If you had a choice between winning the Olympic marathon or Boston/New York/London, which would you choose?" How do you think they would vote? Maybe readers should have a voice in this as well. How would you vote?
DP: I don’t think you’d find a runner who would turn down an Olympic marathon gold medal. But I think that these days you’ll find runners who would rather bypass the Olympics for a shot at the big bucks and fast times that a World Marathon Major offers. The Olympic marathon is not a marginal event, but its place in the distance running landscape has changed. It is no longer the ultimate because the marathon has an ever-increasing talent pool and many lucrative, high-profile events like Boston, New York, Chicago, and London. Regarding your hypothetical question, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill Rodgers would trade a New York City or Boston win for an Olympic gold. However, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Frank Shorter wished he could have a New York City or Boston title to go with his Olympic gold and silver. I certainly will be monitoring the men’s and women’s Olympic marathons in the next couple of weeks. No doubt they’ll be dramatic, but neither will be the “ultimate race” because of the unprecedented era we’re in now.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg