The Two Hour Marathon: Who is it for?

By Michael Crawley 

Athletes relaxing after training

Athletes relaxing after training

In a two-part series in the New York times entitled ‘Man vs Marathon,’ http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/sports/two-hour-marathon-yannis-pitsiladis.html?_r=0Jeré Longman has taken a thorough look at Janos Pitsiladis’ project to accelerate the process which will, almost certainly, eventually lead to a human being running the arbitrary distance of 26.2 miles in a nice even two hours.

In the article, Pitsiladis says that the most likely candidate to achieve this feat would be an Ethiopian or Kenyan athlete with a hard, rural upbringing, and that the best way for them to run that fast for that long would be for them to minimise the amount of weight on their feet, probably running barefoot or with merely ‘a film that covers the bottom of the foot.’

I read the first article whilst I was staying at a rural training camp in Gondar, Ethiopia, where I am doing anthropological fieldwork with aspiring young Ethiopian runners. They happen to fit Pitsiladis’ model: they come from remote rural areas and spent much of their childhood and adolescence running barefoot or in cheap plastic sandals.

Athletes training at the camp at Gondar,

Athletes training at the camp at Gondar,

I read the second article sitting at the side of a field in nearby Debre Tabor with some of the young distance runners from the camp, waiting for the start of the ‘cultural sports festival,’ where people from the nine different regional states in Ethiopia came together to compete in horse riding, gena (resembling hockey with rough hewn wooden sticks and fewer rules) and tigel, a form of Ethiopian wrestling.

We were sitting at the side of the field for the second time that day, having been told at the first-proposed start time of nine in the morning that people didn’t feel like it quite yet and we should come back at three in the afternoon. At three thirty, there was still no sign of any action. The runners had put on traditional Amhara clothing for the occasion and didn’t seem concerned. ‘This is cultural sport, Mike. This is the good life, no-one is in a hurry.’

And running, I ask. Is that the good life too? ‘Sort of,’ I’m told. ‘But running is always about condition, every day worrying about condition, condition, condition.’

This seems to be a good time to ask them about the possibility of a two-hour marathon one day; is there a way for them to work even harder, to go even faster? ‘Two hours in the marathon?’ my friend Telahun* replies, before relaying the question for the others. ‘Yikabadal,’ they murmur together: ‘this is heavy…’ Telahun thinks for a while then adds, respectfully ‘maybe for Kenenisa,’ (Bekele, world record holder at 5,000m and 10,000m) he says, ‘but the Kenenisa of six or seven years ago.’

He then asks the question which Pitsiladis’ research seems to have missed, ‘why is this man so obsessed with that anyway? Aren’t we running fast enough already?’

I tell them that the project is looking for 30 million dollars of investment and they raise their eyebrows. Running clubs in Ethiopia pay modest salaries to their athletes of around 100 dollars a month. ‘So he’ll start a club with good salaries?’ Telahun asks. I’m not so sure about that, I tell them.

The irony is that the sub-2 hour project is focusing on cutting edge science to shave the remaining 177 seconds from the marathon world record. The project epitomises modernity’s project to keep pushing forwards, and to accelerate at all costs. And yet the life that Pitsiladis demands of his subjects is the opposite of this. His ideal candidate should avoid footwear at all costs. They should live off the land. Preferably they should live a life that enables them to practise discomfort, and they should have to walk long distances as well as run hard.

On our way back from a training session the other day we waited for an auto rickshaw to give us a ride back to the camp. A middle aged woman pushed in front of us in the queue, eying our tracksuits and saying, ‘you’re sportsmen, you can go on foot!’ No doubt Pitsiladis would agree. ‘Do you think she realises we got up four hours ago, at 5am, and that we’ve run 22 kilometers this morning?’ one of the athletes asked me.

When I asked my sub-agent friend Gebre about Pitsiladis’ project he told me that he thought it might be possible, but that you’d need to have a special training camp focused exclusively on that goal. ‘You’d have to lock them in,’ he told me, ‘and only let them out to fly to races. And after the race they’d need to be straight back on the plane and back to the training camp.’

He explained that most runners who run fast marathons and win good prize money want to enjoy life in the city a little bit. ‘They’ll buy a car, and drive back to Bekoji (the small town where much of Pitsiladis’ research is based), and then it’s finished for the two hour marathon for them,’ he told me.

But is there really anything wrong with these young men wanting to live their lives a little bit? One of the main problems with marketing distance running is that coverage fails to bring out the personalities of the athletes. Forcing an even more Spartan approach to training is hardly likely to solve this problem. Having become good friends with some Ethiopian marathon runners over the last year, this is a real shame for the sport.

My worry is that the obsession with the two hour marathon will lead to races where a phalanx of identically-dressed pacemakers attempt to escort one exceptionally talented athlete to a world record. The most exciting marathons in recent years, though, have been the duals, the tactical victories and the upsets; Wanjiru vs Kebede in Chicago 2010, Stephen Kiprotich’s Olympic title in 2012 or Meb Keflezighi’s 2014 Boston win. And given the problems with performance enhancing drugs both Kenya and Ethiopia are currently facing, now may not be the time to obsess over the watch. The athletes in Gondar were sceptical about the possibility until I mentioned drugs. ‘Well, yeah, with doping of course it’s possible,’ they said, ‘with doping you can run like a car.’

Training in Addis Ababa.

Training in Addis Ababa.

It is important to think about who the two hour marathon is for. At one point in the interview with Pitsiladis he talks about testing new and eccentric training theories, stating, ‘it may not work but let’s try it and see what happens’ and says he is a ‘risky person.’

This attitude is fine if we’re talking about an experiment in a lab, but these are young men from poor backgrounds whose livelihoods depend on their running. Are scientists taking risks with other people’s bodies? These athletes have hopes, dreams and often families and other dependents to support. They are not merely expendible sources of research data. Perhaps we ought to spend more time asking them what kind of sport they want to be involved in.

Michael Crawley is an Edinburgh University  PhD student in International Development, studying the links between distance running and development in Ethiopia. Here he reflects on the much talked about two-hour marathon, using interviews with young runners in Ethiopia.

* The athletes’ names are changed to protect their anonymity.

Austerity and sport for health

By Dr Dan Parnell and Dr Paul Widdop

Austerity has impacted upon the real life experiences of communities. Sport and recreation has not been immune from austerity.

PastedGraphic-1-1

Against a volume of evidence citing the rising number of food-banks, homelessness, an increasing inequalities gap and the privatisation of the National Health Service it is hard to place sport in the austerity debate. Yet investment in sport for social agendas has evidence of producing a social return, which is not always recognised.

Sport encompasses physical activity and the relationship between the two has long since established the awareness of the health costs of inactivity (WHO, 2010). The World Health Organisation estimates that physical inactivity is the 4th leading risk factor for global mortality, responsible for 6% of deaths globally. That is 3.2 million deaths per year. Including 2.6 million in low-and-middle-income countries. In 2012, ‘The Lancet’ medical journal, noted that the impact of inactivity on mortality could be greater still – 5.3 million deaths per year – rivalling tobacco for causes of death.

Promoting physical activity is not just key, but critical in tackling Public Health issues. A challenge for physical activity researchers and policy makers is reducing inactivity levels within hard to reach communities and in a format that is attractive to fit the consumption needs of local people. Ultimately, sport for health has a role in Public Health in making physical activity more amenable, desirable and attractive to many, including those on the margins.

An insight into the sport and leisure industry

Public Sector provision for sport and leisure has changed and in some cases disappeared since the introduction of austerity driven policy measures.

A report by King for the Association of Public Service Excellence [http://www.apse.org.uk/apse/index.cfm/research/current-research-programme/local-authority-sport-and-recreation-services-in-england-where-next/local-authority-sport-and-recreation-services-in-england-where-next/] pre-empted these reductions in services and highlighted that certain parts of England are being disproportionally affected (APSE, 2010). Austerity has contributed to a fragmented landscape of provision.

Much of the report predictions for 2015; including, falling revenue budgets, staff cuts, increased charges, reduced opening hours, facility closures and reduced commitments to parks and pitches utilized for organised and casual participation; have become a reality. A clear example of this is the fight to ‘Keep Park Road Baths Open’ [http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/news-and-comment/fight-to-save-dingle-pool-gets-thumbs-up-from-beth-tweddle].

In a localised context, Liverpool (UK), which is home to some of the most deprived communities in Britain, evidences high levels of obesity and decreasing fitness levels amongst children across the city. Despite this, its Local Authority service provision for swimming has been severely threatened. Both the Everton Park Sports Centre (within the deprived L5 area) and the Dingle areas Park Road swimming baths were threatened with closure. Further, radical changes to opening times have been imposed on the Austin Rawlinson centre in Speke.

Swimmer

The reported rationale for closures were related to high operating and maintenance costs, which contributed to the budgetary deficit of £7.3 million in the year 2013/2014. Whilst local councillors have looked for options such as community transfer, the swimming pools remain open and under Local Authority management.

This was due to the campaigners who fought the council at every step, yet the safety of the site remains unclear. Whilst the council have committed to the short term future of the site, opening hours have been reduced and key services have been moved to other sites – all contributing to a more subtle withdrawal by the council and lesser services for local (and severely deprived) communities.

Furthermore, what may happen in communities that have a less cohesive network structure that facilitates mobilisation is that they could ultimately lose essential services in sport and leisure which as noted elsewhere impacts upon society and community social capital.

Austerity is real, observable and experienced

Whilst the rolling back of the state will impact Local Authority leisure centres across England and potentially other parts of the UK, the impact of reduced opportunities for communities, families, people and children to participate in sport and physical activity is not certain. What is clear, observable and experienced is that the consequence of austerity has a real impact on real people, across communities.

Is austerity influencing sports participation?

Participation figures for sport and physical activity across Local Authorities in England shows a significant decrease during a period of austerity (2008-2013). Using a pooled logistic regression model of two waves of the Active People Survey, Widdop et al (forthcoming) found that evidence clearly suggests a statistically significant difference in participation in sport for women, younger people and non-white individuals between 2008 and 2013.

In simple terms, there is clear statistical evidence that women participation rates in sport were significantly lower in 2013 than 2008 – a similar pattern is found for both young people aged 14-29 and non-white individuals. This is a worrying development as during this time period we have had major sporting Mega Events happening across Britain, with a participation legacy in place, a legacy that has been systematically challenged by austerity measures. Local Authorities are bracing themselves for more austerity constraints placed upon them, and with sport not being part of core services, it is likely to face further cuts.

Sports which rely heavily on local authority provision especially in grassroots delivery are particularly susceptible to a change in funding structures and support. Indeed, football is such a sport that is mainly dependent on Local Authority provision. Yet, it is this time of year, that football managers, coaches, players and officials dread, as many matches will no-doubt be called off due to poor weather conditions and unplayable surfaces.

Local Authorities are core providers to grassroots sports, through pitch maintenance, development, facilities and upkeep.

Local authorities are experiencing many problems relating to the current economic climate [http://www.academia.edu/8813171/Sport_and_austerity_in_the_UK_an_insight_into_Liverpool_2014] and ultimately they have had tightened their spending [theconversation.com/austerity-cuts-to-local-leisure-services-is-a-false-economy-33320], which impacts frontline services and the experiences of people playing.

2015-02-11113333StreetfootballTHM

A result of this is reduced investment in grassroots sports provision and/or increases in pitch fees and the cost of facility hire. This coupled with the closure of sport and leisure facilities will undoubtedly impact upon the opportunities for sport and physical activity, especially football [www.sportsthinktank.com/blog/2015/03/postponed-due-to-pitch-conditions-grassroots-football-and-sport-participation]. Whilst it is difficult to measure the impact this has on society, it will certainly have a negative impact on social capital, belonging, and well-being, detaching communities from each other, and increasing social tensions.

So why is sport important?

iStock_000002733128[GreenPimp]

So we return to the question set out at the start of the blog, why are we interested in sport for health? Without sport and physical activity we can expect to see an increase in lifestyle related diseases, especially those within our deprived communities. This will have huge impacts on Public Health, none more recognisable to those in government than the financial one. Some politicians could still stand to gain from this, as the privatisation of the NHS will benefit from more people needing support, especially as we know the financial costs inactivity can create.

Whilst, we might struggle to ‘make the case’ for sport, we do know the cost of inactivity, currently standing at £940million per year, with a serious risk of increasing. It has never been more important to invest in sport, leisure and physical activity. An approach that is both preventative and low-cost.

Perhaps it is time for government, LA and those in Public Health to get serious about the current state of Local Authority sport provision, which is slowly but alarmingly disappearing. As it does, we can expect to lose the subsequent physical activity opportunities and gain the consequences of extended inactivity.

Changing the policy story

Underlying all such policy initiatives relating to sport, recreation and health is that the costs of increasing revenue to support young people will prove an excellent investment compared to the scale of future health costs.

The consequence of cutting funding for Local Authority sport and leisure may be one of the major false economies of our time. The debate should not be about how much it will cost today but how much it will cost if no action is taken.

A fundamental paradigm shift is needed in terms of how sport and recreation provision in local authority areas is played out.

Addressing environmental challenges through sport

This blog highlights and recognises some of the work that is already being done to utilise the unique power of sport to address environmental challenges.

By Michael Pedersen,

Founder of M INC. > change the game http://minc.ch.

A campaign for greener sport.

A campaign for greener sport.

The evidence provided within this text reflects information as at 22 September 2015.

Sport is uniquely placed to address societal challenges. It attracts unprecedented attention and unites people across traditional societal dividing lines such as religion, ethnicity, political observation, wealth, social class and cultures.

Greening sport events vs. greening fan behaviours

There are generally two ways for sport to address environmental challenges. One is to reduce the environmental footprint of sport. The other one is to motivate behavioral change among fans, inside as well as outside the stadium.

Behavioural change in and through sport

Behavioural change in and through sport

While most of the current work focuses on greening sport, there is a big potential in also utilising sport to motivate behavioural change among fans in support of addressing environmental challenges.

The environmental footprint of sport

Sport negatively impacts the environment in several ways. Its environmental footprint is primarily caused by (no particular order):

  • The production and distribution of sports wear and sport equipment, including usage (washing clothe) and disposal (garbage).
  • Construction of new sport venues for the hosting of sport events (or renovation of existing facilities).
  •  Construction of new public infrastructure for the hosting of very big sport events (or renovation of existing infrastructure).
  • Fans engaging in sport tourism.
  • Board members and professional staff of sport organisations traveling around the world to attend annual meetings, board meetings and other meetings of national and international sport governing bodies, leagues and clubs.
  • Professional athletes traveling around the world to participate in training and to compete at sport events.

Emerging solutions in the world of sport

Golf eco footprint

While the International Olympic Committee [http://www.olympic.org/sustainability-and-legacy-commission] and FIFA [http://www.fifa.com/sustainability] are integrating environmental sustainability into their evaluation criteria for bidders to host their events, other international sport bodies like for instance International Ski Federation [http://www.fis-ski.com/news-multimedia/news/article=prj-fissustainability.html], Badminton World Federation [http://www.bwfbadminton.org/page.aspx?id=22052] and International Motorcycling Federation [http://www.fim-live.com/en/beyond-sport/topic/ride-green/] are putting in place environmental policies to guide events in their sports.

In sports like for instance golf, surfing and sailing, specific organisations are being established to develop standards for greening sport specific events and/or sport specific equipment, i.e.

A campaign for sustainable surf

A campaign for sustainable surf

Sustainable Surf [http://www.sustainablesurf.org],

A campaign for cleaner regattas

A campaign for cleaner regattas

Sailors for the Sea [http://www.sailorsforthesea.org]

and Golf Environment Organization [http://www.golfenvironment.org].

Also, in countries such as the USA, United Kingdom and Australia, specific organizations that focus on sport and the environment across sports are being established,i.e. Green Sports Alliance[http://www.greensportsalliance.org], British Association for Sustainable Sport [http://www.basis.org.uk] and Sports Environmental Alliance [http://hwww.sportsenvironmentalliance.org]. Last but not least, international standards and tools for greening of sport events are being created, i.e. by Académie Internationale des Sciences et Techniques du Sport (AISTS) [http://www.aists.org/sse].

Evolving good practice: Environmental stewardship at the US Open in tennis

United States Tennis Association (USTA), which is the sport governing body that organises the  US Open [http://www.usopen.org/en_US/about/green_initiatives.html], initiated its environmental work in the context of the US Open Tournament in 2008. Among other things, USTA’s strategic decision to do so reflected increasing fan expectations of green initiatives and burgeoning energy costs.

During recent years, USTA has further increased and diversified its initiatives to minimize the environmental impact of US Open. Today, the Association is showcasing environmental stewardship in the context of its annual premier Tournament in at least four ways:

Minimizing direct environmental impact

Initiatives to minimize the direct environmental impact of US Open include:

  • Matching the electricity generated during the tournament through Green-e certified wind renewable energy certificates
  • Using napkins and other paper material composed of 40-100 percent recycled material
  • Diverting waste through recycling and composting
  • Collecting tennis balls used during matches and practices to be donated to community and youth organisations

Off-setting the environmental impact of player travel

Player travel to US Open is offset through Green-e Climate certified Sterling Planet carbon offsets. That is the case for both travel by air as well as travel on the ground.

Encouraging fans to adopt environmentally responsible behaviour

Each year, USTA hosts more than 700,000 fans during the two weeks of US Open at The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City, USA. Initiatives to encourage tennis fans to adopt environmentally responsible behaviour include a campaign for them to take public transportation to the tournament venue.

Initiatives to encourage fans to adopt environmentally responsible behaviour beyond the US Open include a 30-second public service announcement titled “Impact”. Broadcasted regularly during the tournament, the announcement encourages fans to reduce their paper, water and energy use.

An important aspect is a message from Billie Jean King, the tennis legend whose name the stadium carries. Her message is: “To solve the serious environmental problems facing our planet, we need to shift our culture toward more sustainable practices.”

Other similar initiatives include environmental tips for smarter living that are featured in the ‘Daily Draw sheet’ as well as through US Open social media channels.

Shaping evolving good environmental practices in sport in partnership with others

Besides working closely with the Natural Resources Defense Council, USTA is a member of Green Sports Alliance.

Evolving good practice: International Cycling Union Eco Cyclo Patrol

The Eco Cyclo Patrol [http://www.eco-cyclo.org ] was created in 2006 in France by a passionate cyclist named Patrick François.

After too many negative experiences in seeing what participants leave behind at cycling events, Patrick decided to recruit volunteer cyclists to teach good environmental manners to their fellow participants.

The easily recognizable Eco Cyclo Patrol group of volunteer cyclists participate in targeted cycling events with the mission of advising and encouraging their fellow cyclists to adopt a responsible attitude to the environment.

Dressed in easily recognizable green harlequin jerseys, the volunteers in the Eco Cyclo Patrol ride alongside their fellow cycling fans and encourage green behavior. Not only do they fight against rubbish left behind by participants after major cycling events, they also work with organizers to encourage the use of renewable energy and recyclable infrastructures.

An ecocyclo group

An ecocyclo group

In 2013, the Eco Cyclo Patrol gained support by the International Cycling Union and is now expanding to offer cyclists and event organisers all around the world the opportunity to join in adopting environmentally friendly practices too.

Conclusion

Sport is uniquely placed to address societal challenges such as environmental issues. It can reduce its environmental footprint, not least from sport events.

it is in a position to motivate behavioral change among fans in support of the environment, inside as well as outside the stadium.

Emerging solutions include integrating environmental sustainability into the evaluation criteria for bidders to host sport events as well as establishing sport or country specific organisations, offering guidance and standards to reduce the environmental impact of sport.

Cases of emerging good practice include the US Open in tennis and the International Cycling Union’s Eco Cyclo Patrol.