What can the reception to Kipchoge’s performance in Berlin tell us about the current state of running fandom?
It’s been almost a week since Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in two hours, one minute, and thirty-nine seconds. Alone for the bulk of the second half of the race, he closed in 60:03. Kipchoge’s mark obliterated the previous world record by 78 seconds, and if all of this glossy synopsis doesn’t scream dominance, then just look at how insultingly smooth the guy moved closing out a two-hour-long effort during which he clicked off seemingly effortless 4:38 miles.
News of this baffling feat left the running world gobsmacked. Check out CITIUS’ freaking homepage. Hell, Check out any running website’s homepage. A week’s passed, and probably 70% of the ink spilled chronicling the sport in that time has been dedicated to the guy’s performance in Berlin. His race was dominant, and so still is his gravity.
Sure, he’s been great for 15 years at this point, and in the sport’s more fanatical circles, he’s been lauded as such for just as long. But to the more casual—read: younger, more American—fan of running, Kipchoge as a captivating presence emerged in May of 2017, thanks to a massive marketing ploy by Nike. Kipchoge’s heavily asterisked 2:00:25—numerous caveats aside—was remarkable. And it was great content. His 2:01:39—presumably sans asterisk, but we’ll get to that in a second—forced those who doubted the veracity of his closed-course, sub-two attempt to reconsider.
Hell, the hype even spilled over into non-running media… real media. Kipchoge’s been all over. To the point where it’s been difficult to really assess the full scope of reactions to his result.
So forgive me for asking, but did I miss the part where a large, vocal subset of running fandom cries “foul,” or at least takes a questioning stance? Where were the detractors? The naysayers? The cynics and doubt-casters whose smartphones autocorrect innocuous phrases like “talk to you later” to “HE’S DIRTY!”
After all and sadly, to be a fan of professional track & field is to be occasionally let down by your heroes. For vague but noble reasons of fairness and purity, we, as fans and participants of the sport, have decided that Doping is Bad. Under no circumstances are advantages to be gained by an athlete through chemical alterations to biology. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for elite athletes to flub this Golden Rule up and stick a needle right in the already dwindling trust we have in the institution.
As such, to be a fan of professional track & field is also to be a skeptic, who innately scrutinizes anything fast, even at the expense of appreciating the beautiful. Except there doesn’t seem to be the usual loud, braying hoard of skeptical running geeks hemming and hawing about Kipchoge’s otherworldly performance.
This isn’t to say I have strong suspicions about what took place in Berlin. This is more to point out that the blind acceptance of Eliud Kipchoge is arguably a good thing for the prospects of the sport’s diminutive fanbase.
Have we decided that there are races and athletes that simply transcend doubt, and for whom we are able to cast aside the usual looming cloud of uncertainty?
Kipchoge speaks like a Pez dispenser that plops out little hard Universal Truths. He’s—as we’ve covered—really fast. He seems to embody the reclusive, noble warrior that Once a Runner really valorized. And his sponsors have pumped what must be millions of dollars into making sure we know all this about the guy.
He’s as good a candidate as any athlete to slice through our collective lingering uncertainty with sheer talent and humble charisma.
But if that’s not what’s going on, then is it something bigger? Are we collectively ready to—apologies for this part—believe again? Do we just not care as much about the potential let down? Or are we reaching a point where cheating in the sport is such a consistent force, that we’re just over that particular hangup?
Whatever it is, I genuinely want to know. But please don’t yell at me. Feel free to tweet at Stephen Kersh, who will filter out the nice responses.