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April 19, 2020

Track and Field, Running Documentaries We Want to See Made

In light of the 10-part Michael Jordan documentary coming out on ESPN in the next few days, a question was posed to several members of the CITIUS MAG team about track and field or running documentaries that we would love to see made. It’s hard to argue that anyone in the sport would be worth a 10-part documentary series because Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson’s 100-meter final at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul got the 30 for 30 treatment with a look into their rivalry and performance-enhancing drugs fallout. Because we’re track and field fans, it’s easy to jump on certain stories and be like “Oh that would be a great documentary!” but for it to deserve the 30 for 30 treatment, it definitely has to have a unique hook and greater sports audience appeal.

The question posed to the team was: “What track and field documentary would you want to see made if you gave Hollywood producers an unlimited budget to work with? The documentary can be multiple parts.”

Here are some of our responses:

Chris Chavez  – Salazar

There’s no denying that Alberto Salazar is one of the most captivating figures in the sport. He’s definitely not worth a 10-part documentary series but there’s definitely a feature film or a three-part documentary series that I can imagine. In the three-part documentary series, you have his childhood in Massachusetts and then explore his accomplishments at the University of Oregon and then as a professional and take it through the Comrades Marathon win – where he starts to experiment with Prozac and then retires by the late 90s. Part II could dive into his rise as a coach with the pinnacle moment being the 2012 Olympics. I don’t think there was ever a higher point in his coaching supremacy than transforming Mo Farah into the dominant champion that he became and elevating Galen Rupp to the level of some of the top East Africans. Medals and records with the likes of Shannon Rowbury, Jordan Hasay and Matt Centrowitz were also highlights through 2016. A third part easily gets dedicated to the controversy starting with the BBC/ProPublica report of 2015, USADA’s investigation through the ban, Mary Cain’s allegations of weight shaming and abuse and what his legacy ultimately is. This would be a tremendous undertaking for any filmmaker where getting some pivotal people like Salazar or Rupp in front of a camera for a no-holds-barred interview may not happen. You end up attempting to paint a portrait of a man without the key subject, which was a challenge with many Jordan documentaries over the years.

Kevin Liao – The Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

To me, Sammy Wanjiru has always been one of the most intriguing figures in the world of running. In his teens, the Kenyan star moved far away from home to train with the famed Japanese distance running groups and experienced immense success at an early age, including breaking the half marathon world record at age 18. His remarkable run at the 2008 Beijing Olympics opened the flood gates for the progressively faster marathon times we’ve seen in the decade since. His epic duel with Tsegaye Kebede at the 2010 Chicago Marathon remains one of the great marathon finishes ever. But as quickly as he rose to stardom soon came a tragic ending for Wanjiru. In 2011 at just the age of 24, Wanjiru died after falling off a second-floor balcony at his home in Kenya. The full story behind the death remains unsettled. Here’s what we do know — Sammy Wanjiru lived a fascinating life, and a documentary exploring his rise and his fall would expose a wider audience to the revolutionary runner and complicated human being that he was.

Scott Fauble – Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness

Suzy Favor Hamilton’s story is my pick. That’s one that goes outside of the bubble from just running. In 2012, The Smoking Gun published a story revealing that Favor-Hamilton was also working as a high-priced Las Vegas escort. The story encapsulates sport, sex, mental illness (Favor-Hamilton later revealed that she suffered from bipolar disorder, was previously misdiagnosed and put on the wrong medication which caused symptoms to worsen), and a double life where she went by “Kelly Lundy”. When we brainstorm some of these ideas, we tend to get worked up about stuff that actually isn’t that crazy or doesn’t go beyond the sport. Mo Farah arguing with Haile Gebreselassie comes to mind. That truly pales in comparison to what Favor-Hamilton went through. If I saw the plot in a movie, I’m not sure I would buy it. But it’s true. It happened and she detailed a lot of it in her book, “Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness.” The stories she has would be truly captivating.

David Melly – The Caster Semenya Saga

Two-time Olympic and three-time world champion Caster Semenya has been a lightning rod for unwanted controversy since she burst on the scene in 2009. Her commanding dominance over the women’s 800 meters for the better most of a decade has sparked a worldwide conversation about fairness, athlete privacy and how we define athlete sex for the purpose of sport. The conversation, combined with Semenya’s apparent unbeatability when competing under the old rules, has made terms like “DSD” and “hyperandrogenism” commonplace and in 2018 new IAAF guidelines were released that seemed targeted to limiting her participation in her primary events. Despite the onslaught of ugly fan discourse, public dissections of her appearance and multiple court cases, Semenya has been the ultimate class act. She has never lost her cool in interviews. She treats her competitors with respect and she represents her country with pride. However, I don’t believe she has never openly shared “her side” of the story in full, even as virtually every commentator, competitor and sports scientist has publicly opined on the validity of her career. Because of her stoic attitude and larger-than-life presence on the track, it’s easy to forget that this philosophical debate is occurring primarily against the backdrop of one person’s career. When Semenya won her first world title, she was 18. Now 29, she has gotten married, pursued a brief career in soccer and become one of Nike’s most recognizable international stars, all while dominating her event in an unprecedented manner. I’d love to see a film that gives her the opportunity to let her tell us about her journey, not through the critical eye of policy, but through the personal lens of a remarkable woman thriving under media scrutiny.

Jesse Squire – USC-UCLA track rivalry from 1966 to 1977

One “mainstream” topic ESPN’s 30 for 30 hasn’t done but should is the Woody-Bo “Ten Year War” of Ohio State vs Michigan games from 1969 to 1978.  I would look at a similar matchup of twelve years of the USC-UCLA track rivalry from 1966 to 1977, as fought at many meets but mostly at the USC-UCLA dual and the NCAA Championships.

Through 1965 UCLA had never beaten USC in their dual meet (and only three other teams had beaten USC in the previous 20 years) but in ’66 the Bruins broke through and won the NCAAs a month later. It was back-and-forth for those twelve years. The dual often produced better winning marks than most conference meets, and one or the other won the NCAAs in seven of those twelve years. The turnouts for those meets were huge, always standing-room-only when held at UCLA’s 10,000 seat Drake Stadium and sometimes as many as 30,000 when held at the L.A. Coliseum. The 1975 meet is considered the greatest collegiate dual of all time; a freshman triple jumper named Willie Banks went from fourth to first on his last attempt to pull the meet out for the Bruins.

There’s so much more that could be examined in relation to the peak of this rivalry. Southern California was the center of American sports and entertainment to a level it never achieved before or since. Olympic sports also had its peak in popular culture through shows like the Superstars, Battle of the Network Stars, and Laff-A-Lympics. And the cast of characters involved in the rivalry was remarkable. A huge number of Olympic and international stars competed in those meets, but others transcended track and field: O.J. Simpson and pro wrestler Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart are two that come to mind.

Besides, who wouldn’t want to check out the late-60s and 70s Americana in all its SoCal hipness?  Far

Daniel Winn – Dellinger

Bill Dellinger is one of the most seminal coaches in American distance running history, and yet he rarely gets the recognition he deserves. His Wikipedia page is a measly 326 words long, for goodness’ sake. As one of the early star athletes for the coach who overshadows him, Bill Bowerman, Dellinger set three American records and two world records, and made three Olympic teams, winning the bronze medal in 1964 after a three-year retirement. His greatest impact came as a coach, however. Dellinger coached A-list athletes like Steve Prefontaine, Matt Centrowitz Sr, Bill McChesney Jr, and Mary Decker Slaney, and elevated many athletes not so superlatively talented to great heights.

Matt Centrowitz Sr. said of Dellinger, “I couldn’t believe there was a coach on the planet that could get these guys—the ones at Oregon—to run [sub four-minutes for the mile].”

Dellinger described his approach to training as “principles of common sense that have been refined through the years.” While he had his influences—like New Zealander Arthur Lydiard and Swedish cross country coach Gösta Holmér—he had to describe his ideas as “common sense” because so few (legitimate) running concepts predated him. His “Five Principles” (moderation, progression, variation, adaptability, and callousing) laid the framework for modern elite training.

It would be valuable to hear from the athletes he coached at various stages of his career to learn how his training philosophy was ‘refined through the years,’ and about the origins and developments of ideas like his Five Principles, the workout that inspired “The Michigan,” the 30-40 workout, sprint-float-sprints, date vs goal pace training, and others.

His decades-old concepts are still applicable today, and have spread far beyond the athletes he trained directly. More runners and running fans should know of, learn from, and celebrate his legacy.

Pat Price – Tarmohgeddon

With me, always goes back to the dead heat between Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix in the 100 meter final at 2012 Trials. She was 3rd. Then they took her name off the board and it said she and Felix tied. Then, she bailed on the highly-publicized runoff. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED behind the scenes. The people may want to know, but I need to.

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