U.S. Golden Age Receding in the Distance


It was the defining day for marathon running by Americans: April 18, 1994. A strong west wind blew Bob Kempainen from Hopkinton, Mass., to downtown, in 2 hours 8 minutes 47 seconds.

No American has run the distance faster than Kempainen ran in that 98th Boston Marathon.

He finished seventh, behind two Kenyans, two Mexicans, a Korean and a Tanzanian.

Where once there was a Golden Age of marathon running, now there is only brass, as far as the sport exists for Americans. Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic medalist, sells sportswear. Bill Rodgers, three times a Boston Marathon winner, has a running store. Dick Beardsley battles addiction for pain-killers. Joan Benoit-Samuelson bakes birthday cakes for her children in Maine. Alberto Salazar has a restaurant in Eugene, Ore.

They regularly turned out 2:09 marathons, and in their places are Jerry Lawson, whose 2:10:04, run in Chicago, was the 27th fastest in the world last year; and Olga Appell, whose 2:27:59, run in Twin Cities, was 16th fastest in the world in 1996.


“Those guys, Bill Rodgers, and Frank Shorter, and Greg Meyer, and Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar for the men, and Joan Benoit for the women, they were titans,” says John Kelley, winner of the 1957 Boston Marathon.

“We didn’t appreciate them for what they were. We thought they were products of a running revolution but, actually, they were creators of it. And every time one faltered, another stepped up.”

And then . . . nobody was there to step up:

* no American Olympic medalist since Benoit in 1984.

* no male American Olympic gold medalist since Shorter.

* of the 251 marathons and their 502 open divisions--men’s and women’s--run in this country last year, 14 divisions were won by Americans.

* the last American marathon in which both men’s and women’s winners were Americans was 1991 in Los Angeles, when Mark Plaatjes and Appell showed their heels to the pack. Plaatjes, a native South African, had been an American only a few months. Appell, from Mexico, had been a U.S. citizen only a few days.

Today’s winners of American marathons are the winners of marathons run in London and Rotterdam and Berlin. They come from Kenya, Mexico, Ethiopia, Japan, Korea and a few from Europe, especially the women. They are from places where their stature is like that of Michael Jordan in the U.S.

“They are from places where there is more of a running culture, where running is a part of society,” says Rodgers, who insists that American running is not that bad “as a team.”


“You look here at Boston, particularly the women. We have Olga Appell and Kim Jones and Kristy Johnson. Somebody from that group could win it, and if you take one-two-three scores, they would win it as a team. There is depth.”

But Appell, Jones and Johnson are decided underdogs to Uta Pippig of Germany, who is seeking her fourth Boston victory in a row.

And none will run the 2:21:21 that Benoit-Samuelson ran in 1985 in Chicago, second in women’s running history only to Ingrid Kristiansen’s 2:21:06, run that year in London.

And Keith Brantly and Plaatjes, the best of the American men here, won’t run the 2:08:47 of Kempainen, which was really a statistical blip, because for almost 20 years after the Golden Age, American running had been on a decline.

The times, 2:21:21 for the women and 2:08:47 for the men, are targets for the American runners, because the New Balance Athletic Shoe company has offered $1 million to any American who can best them.

It’s an advertising gimmick, certainly, but one that has caught the attention of some of the elite U.S. runners.


Still, Brantly, a New Balance client, admits that, “with my personal best of 2:12:49, I’m in the ‘I’d pay a million bucks for a 2:08’ category,” and Plaatjes’ 2:08:58 best was run a lot of years and miles ago. He’s 35 and concedes his career is about over.

And what American woman can run 2:21:21? “I can,” Gwen Coogan says flatly. “I’m tired of everybody downplaying Americans.”

But she hasn’t come within eight minutes of it.

Why? What happened?

There are as many theories as runners, and here are a few:

“The women run for college scholarships, and that means three seasons a year for four years,” says Benoit-Samuelson. “By the time they’re finished with college, they’re burned out.”

And from Shorter: “When prize money came into the picture [in the 1980s], unfortunately, Americans decided to fund pension plans rather than focus on the gold. . . . Americans don’t have long-term high goals, and if you don’t have that, you can’t orient your life to win big races. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you’re eliminating a lot of hard training days from your schedule if you’re racing too much.”

And from Rodgers: “We need more money for coaches and maybe for national running camps. Our federation’s (USA Track and Field) doesn’t stand with other federations in other sports. We have about $6 million, and that’s about what you pay a good baseball player these days.”

For whatever reason, it’s plain that momentum has swung away from Americans. Will it swing back?


“I can win,” Appell says. “I am 33 and I think I have about five more years. And it will take a combination of things: the right fitness, the right day, maybe some wind. But I think someday I can run 2:21.”

Until then, the skeptics remain, and a shoe company’s money stays in the bank.