As we approach London 2012, the half-marathon is on a roll, surging in both popularity and performance: Witness the expansion of the field for the NYC Half on March 18 from 10,000 to 15,000. And New York is no outlier. According to stats from Running USA, the half-marathon has been the fastest-growing distance in the United States since 2003, and from 2006 to 2010 the number of 13.1-mile finishers grew by 10 percent or more each year. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, the number of finishers grew by 24 percent for the second year in a row. And the U.S. isn't alone in its affection: the two largest half-marathons in the world in 2010 were the Bupa Great North Run in Great Britain, with 39,507 finishers, and the Goteborg Half-Marathon in Sweden with 38, 459. (The OneAmerica 500 Festival in Indianapolis, IN, was the largest in the U.S., with 31,046). As far as performance, four of history's five fastest times for men have been run in the last two years, and Mary Keitany set a world record for women in 2011. Is it time for the distance to become an Olympic event? Debating the topic are Neil Amdur, former sports editor of the New York Times, and Dick Patrick, former Olympic writer for USA Today.
Neil Amdur: Normally, I am hesitant to add events to the Olympic program, since many are barely legitimate and often are staged to fill out a television schedule. In the case of the half-marathon, I would whole-heartedly endorse it as an addition to the Olympic track and field program for 2016. The timing is right; the event has now certified itself on many levels, from a participant and competitive level; and track and field needs some new juice to reestablish itself in the public psyche. Bring it on.
Dick Patrick: Not so fast, my friend. While the half-marathon may not be the equivalent of synchronized diving—a bad idea to manufacture interest, especially when the Olympics are worried about too many events and participants—its time has not yet come. Let's first try the event at the World Championships and see how it plays there. Does it draw top competitors and produce drama? As of yet, the World Half-Marathon Championships have not caught on as a spectator "must" on the road circuit.
NA: If the Olympic fathers wait for track and field's governing body to initiate anything progressive, we will all be senile and unable to appreciate the joys of a half-marathon. Track and field has languished in the shadows of other sports because its leaders had and still have no vision. They live and die by archaic rules and move only when absolutely necessary, usually when it's too late. That's why it will take a strong push by the 2016 Olympic leaders to put the half-marathon at the top of a program agenda. I don't mind seeing it at a World Championships; but as Mary Decker Slaney and others will tell you, winning the Worlds ain't the Olympics, and that's where you want the visibility and gold.
DP: Things could change but, despite the numbers of fitness runners in the event, the half- marathon is not yet a marquee event. It's not like the women's marathon prior to 1984, with both the public and elite athletes demanding the event. If the event becomes a sensation, both Olympic and international track officials can speed it to inclusion in the Games. They've learned from past mistakes that they must be quicker to react to trends: Witness all the new snowboard and trick-skiing events in the Winter Games. But the half-marathon is not there yet as a must-see event that includes superstars the public wants to watch compete.
NA: Must differ. Swimming builds its story lines on Michael Phelps going for 8,000 gold medals in multiple events. The public doesn't care what event he is swimming: It's the medals and the build-up that generate excitement. The same is true in gymnastics. The reason figure skating has disappeared as a mainstream sell is because its federation failed to see the marketing opportunities of having all the top skaters competing instead of just traveling around in endlessly boring exhibitions. The reason the half-marathon "is not there yet as a must-see event" is because the godfathers of track and field also lack marketing skills, and the athletes, once so accessible, are now prisoners of their agents and shoe companies and unwilling to sell the sport. So the public doesn't connect.
DP: I agree with your point regarding swimming and gymnastics. The problem: Extending that theory to distance running is risky. Recovery is much more crucial to a Haile Gebrselassie than it is to a Phelps or a Nastia Liukin. The Olympics has nine days of track and field with the 10,000 meters traditionally early and the marathon as the classic closing event. If you put the half midway through that segment, it will be tough for a 10K guy to come back so soon and anyone who runs the half would be toast for the marathon. It's been tough enough in modern times to combine the 10K and marathon or the 5K and 10K. I think the addition of the half would induce fatigue—both to runners and spectators.
NA: You're right. All the more reason why the half-marathon will produce its own stars, especially among the women. There are enough quality half-marathon races now that could provide a strong lead-in for the Olympics. Unlike the marathon, which limits the number of races a world-class competitor can have in a year, the half-marathon has more flexibility, more opportunities to see the best in action. If not every week, in the 5K or 10K mode, then with enough frequency to build some genuine excitement for an Olympic showdown.
DP: Very true that the half is a more sane distance that allows runners to compete more often than they can at the marathon. But so far I don't see the half producing enough stars to warrant inclusion in the Olympics. Part of that may be the economics of distance running. The money is in the marathon, not the half, so that's where the most talented runners go. If the economics change and/or there is a sudden emergence of half-marathon superstars, then it will be time to make a change. Now it's premature.