Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 15 Oct 1999 09:13:20 -0400

Invisible Man

(from RC 289)

Haile Gebrselassie is the greatest. He's surely the world's greatest active distance runner, and maybe the greatest ever.

Widening the field to all runners of both sexes, "Geb" is a greater talent than two of the three American M's (Marion Jones and Maurice Greene) and at least equal to the third (Michael Johnson). He has the dignity of Johnson, the charm of Jones and the exuberance of Greene.

Gebrselassie has an engaging manner, a winning smile and a good command of English. But you'd never know it from watching the World Championships on U.S. television.

In more than 20 hours of coverage, shared between NBC and TBS, the Ethiopian and his winning 10,000 rated not one second on the screen and not one word of commentary. The women's 10, with the fastest and closest finish in Worlds or Olympic history, also went unreported -- as did the close and fast men's 5000.

But the biggest crime was ignoring Gebrselassie. He was the first runner to win four straight World titles, beating Michael Johnson to the honor.

Geb also won the latest Olympic 10. He holds the world record. He almost never loses at any distance, thanks mainly to a kick that exceeds even that of his early hero Miruts "The Shifter" Yifter.

Gebrselassie paid heavily for his run in Seville. He ran on in hot weather and on a hard track that were friendly to sprinters but hell for distance runners. He hamburgered his feet, hurt an achilles tendon and lost the rest of his season.

All of this happened off the screens of Americans. The U.S. networks might argue that viewers here aren't interested in a race this long, especially with no one from this country contending.

The counter-argument: Geb is hardly unknown to Americans -- not after winning the 10,000 in Atlanta, not after his movie "Endurance" played here (briefly) earlier this year. So he's good enough for U.S. theaters and video stores, but not for TV?

Ignoring him is like covering a golf tournament without showing Greg Norman because he's Australian -- or cutting out Steffi Graf from a tennis tournament because she's German. It would have been, in our sport's past, like paying no attention to Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Lasse Viren or Ingrid Kristiansen.

Some athletes transcend national boundaries and loyalties. Haile Gebrselassie is the best current example. To broadcast a track meet and leave him invisible is unforgivable.

Especially when the networks had plenty of time available. They could have replaced ad-nauseum reruns of the 3-M's with a minute or two of the 10,000. They could have cut Geb into the hour or so devoted to the women's and men's marathons, when the most distance fans were watching.

One well-known follower of the sport in this country tuned out early. Don Kardong, RRCA president and Runner's World writer, said during the World Championships, "If television wants people like me to watch, they better start putting on distance races.

"I understand that the average American viewer only has an attention span of 45 seconds, but that's not my problem. Or maybe it is, since it means people like myself (my attention span is 14 minutes) aren't going to get to see anything we really want to see."

Not even the world's greatest runner.


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