In Response to Malcolm Gladwell’s Pied Piper Cross Country Idea

By Kyle Merber

August 3, 2022

One of the many guests who stopped by the CITIUS MAG house during the World Championships was New York Times best-seller and track fanatic Malcolm Gladwell. Because our hour conversation wasn’t enough, we got dinner later that night and he continued to pitch us the idea of his 20-athlete deep cross country race, that he has officially coined the “Pied Piper.”

It was no surprise that he later took pen to paper to spell out exactly why this shift to a new type of race will bring about short and long-term improvements to the sport.

There’s a lot to like about Gladwell’s proposal, but as a retired-athlete-turned-talking-head, you already know I have some counter thoughts. Before diving into my commentary on the Pied Piper’s theoretical efficacy, I suggest reading the full transcript of Gladwell’s bulletin here — and go ahead and subscribe while you’re at it.

In its current form, a standard high school cross country race is won by the team with the lowest aggregate score for its top five placed runners out of a team of seven. The first place finisher earns their team one point, second place gets two points, and so on. In an effort to boost participation in the sport by getting more kids involved in team scoring opportunities, Gladwell suggests that we amend these rules to include each team’s top 20 athletes in scoring. And more controversially, he also suggests the winner be determined by clocking the lowest combined time for all 20 of a team’s finishers.

I should begin by noting that there isn’t a participation issue in high school cross country. The real challenge in Gladwell’s eyes is convincing high school runners to stick with the sport past graduation, whether competitively or not. I think that issue goes hand-in-hand with one I’m always going on about: that running as a whole struggles to convert its youth participants into lifelong fans.

The easiest solution there is to show these younger athletes that running is something that exists beyond the scope of their Saturday morning cross country races, and that it’s something to care about for life. Bring the professionals to the high school meets that are thriving and that routinely attract 10,000+ kids: Mt. Sac, the Manhattan Invite, Great American, etc.

Then have those pros race on a short looped course so it’s easy to spectate!

While Gladwell’s intentions are well-placed, the reality of the Pied Piper scoring method, once implemented, may look quite different from what’s forecast in his essay. We don’t have to venture much farther than two scoring systems that already exist to discover the Pied Piper’s potential holes.

The first is ironic given Gladwell’s vocal disdain for the sport, but cycling has provided us well over a century’s worth of data and results to model from. One of my biggest gripes with the sport of cross country is that despite the wide-ranging conditions, undulating terrain, and questionable course measurements, many athletes and coaches bring their obsession with time from the track to the mud. In the Tour de France, the only time that counts is relative to your competitors: the number we count is how far behind the winner one finishes. The Pied Piper accomplishes this.

But ask a cycling fan to name the last few team classification winners!

No one cares about this category. Instead, fans choose to focus on the riders up front who are winning the stages, sprints, and uphill climbs. Most of the efforts for the majority of the team are to act as a domestique to assist their contender — why? Because fans love a star! No new scoring method will make the slowest runner matter that much more, but it will make the team element matter less.

Then there’s the logistics. The second I heard Gladwell’s field-expanding suggestion, I had flashbacks to being shoved to the ground at the start of a chaotic race in high school and fearing for my life as the stampede trampled over me. With 31 teams plus additional individual qualifiers, the New York State Federation meet had 285 girls cross the finish line at Bowdoin Park last year. The Pied Piper essentially triples the size of every event!

There is a safe way to do this that will also solve the problem of making it slightly more obvious who the race winner is. After all, even with just five athletes receiving popsicle sticks at the end of the finisher chute, there is generally an extended wait for the final results of a high school cross country race to be tabulated. Waiting for the 20th athlete to come in and calculate the cumulative score won’t make that any easier.

The Japanese style of Ekiden simplifies this. What is fundamentally a relay race on the roads, the Ekiden sees athletes passing along a sash rather than a baton. The most popular version is the Hakone Ekiden which features ten athletes per team over two days across a 217km long course. It was watched by over 64 million television viewers in 2021.

If the goal is to popularize the sport and make it so that every athlete matters, then where better to look than Japan, where distance running is must-watch television, a participatory cultural mainstay, and a great source of national pride? In 2021, Japan had 106 men break 2:15 in the marathon. The United States only had 11. (With respective populations of 125 million vs. 330 million people.)

And if the goal of the Pied Piper scoring system is to circumvent Gladwell’s Law — that “in any sporting endeavor, elite achievement comes at the cost of mass participation” — then maybe the entire element of cross country being a team sport is the problem.

Potential high cross country runners aren’t necessarily intimidated by running itself — 18.1 million Americans signed up for a road race in 2018. But what percentage of the non-running-averse population would still find running enjoyable if there was suddenly an added element of external pressure? Surely there’s a sizable percentage of would-be high school harriers who wouldn’t come out for the team if there was an expectation that their performance matters — that in their first ever race it could be them that sinks their team’s chances at a collective victory. What if scoring 20 athletes has the adverse effect of diminishing participation?

Catch Malcolm Gladwell’s appearance on CITIUS MAG Live! here…

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.