Is the 10,000m Verging on Extinction? (By Peter Gambaccini for ‘Running Times’ – Image by Andrew McClanahan of PhotoRun Published)
For much of the past two decades, the fastest men’s 10,000m track race of the year was run at Memorial Ivo Van Damme in Brussels. That Belgian meet, which will be held on Friday, was going to have the only world-class invitational 10,000m of the 2014 European summer season. But it’s been removed from the schedule, and now the longest “flat” men’s race in Brussels will be a 1500m.
That means that all of 2014’s top 25 men’s 10,000 times will have been run in the United States or Japan, and that “world class” 10,000m running was essentially over before the year was five months old. It leaves Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp, who ran 26:44.36 on “Distance Night” in Eugene the evening before the Prefontaine Classic, as the fastest 10,000m runner of the year.
That’s nice news for Rupp, but not for someone like Chris Derrick, who was a 10,000m finalist at the 2013 world championships and finished second to Rupp in the 10,000m at this year’s USATF Championships in 28:18.18. Derrick, whose career best is 27:31.38, had headier goals in mind. The planned 10,000m in Brussels was “definitely going to be the focal point of my season,” he says. Derrick was driving with his coach, Jerry Schumacher, to a 5,000m in Heusden, Belgium, on July 19, where he would run a 13:14. En route to the race, Schumacher “got quiet for a little bit and then said, ‘Yeah, 13:35,’” Derrick recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s a really slow 5K time. I hope I don’t run that.’ Then he’s like ‘Yeah, you just need to be ready to come through [halfway] in 13:35 in Brussels.’ We were on our way to another race and he was already thinking about the 10,000.” The race on Schumacher’s mind was to be held seven weeks later. Derrick, incidentally, thinks a 27:10—two times that 13:35 —would have been “a pretty good goal.”
But in late July, Derrick’s agent, Dan Lilot, was told that the Brussels 10,000 was off. Three sources suggested that meet organizers weren’t assured that they would see a fast time from a notable headliner—which apparently meant either Rupp, reigning world and Olympic champion Mo Farah, or Kenenisa Bekele (who set the current world record in the event, 26:17.53, in 2005 in Brussels). Bekele is preparing for the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 12.
The 10,000m at the world class level has been an endangered animal for quite awhile now.
Look back at what Track & Field News had to say about its rankings for the men’s 10,000m in 2010, the previous year with no Olympics or World Championships: “Since it’s not ‘spectator friendly” in an era when TV production-values dominate the Euro Circuit, not a single major Old Continent meet staged a 10K,” the magazine wrote. The article noted that the 10,000 “was approaching orphan status.” The No. 1 ranking went to Kenyan Wilson Kiprop, whose two races were high altitude tests in Africa.
Women haven’t had a 10,000m tradition at Brussels or any other invitational and, in fact, the fastest women’s 10,000s in both 2008 and 2012 were Tirunesh Dibaba’s gold medal efforts at the Beijing and London Olympics, respectively. A Palo Alto race on May 4 yielded nine of 2014’s top 10 women’s times, including Sally Kipyego’s 30:42.26 and Molly Huddle’s 30:47.59. It was the only women’s 10,000 anywhere on the planet in 2014 that could honestly be called world-class. The influential agent Jos Hermens, whose clients include Bekele, observes that the 2014 Brussels 10,000 “didn’t really have a story. If you have someone attacking the world record or a name like Mo or Kenenisa, they [the meet organizers] would have done it.” Says Hermens: “Brussels wants to keep that tradition and it’s a little sad that they cancelled it this year. Hopefully, we can install it in the future.”
Hopefully. Brussels might be the last bastion, if it’s a bastion at all. Oslo’s Bislett Games frequently had elite 10,000s in the 1990s, when three world records were set there, including the first sub-27:00 in history, a 26:58.38 by Yobes Ondieki in 1993, and Haile Gebrselassie’s 26:31.32 in 1997, which lowered the existing standard by 20 seconds. Earlier, topflight 10,000s would be staged in Stockholm, and more recently, they’ve intermittently turned up in venues like Hengelo in the Netherlands and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. But if “Distance Night,” which Meet Director Tom Jordan calls “geek heaven,” hadn’t been created in 2011 in Eugene, the 10,000m would be verging on extinction outside of the Olympics and world championships. The 25-lap track race has been in the Olympics since 1912. Is its future at risk?
The IAAF’s 2013 decision that the top 15 at the world cross country championships would be treated as have time qualifiers for outdoor track’s world championships 10,000m might seem like a wise “why didn’t we think of this before” move. But a cynic might wonder if it’s a desperate attempt to simultaneously resuscitate two entities on life support—world cross country, which is now a biennial event with negligible European involvement—and track’s 10,000m. “Crowds have changed,” Hermens says. “People have no patience to watch half an hour for a 10,000.” We’ve heard that frequently enough, and it’s an operating principle in TV telecasts, which routinely abandon the 10,000m for two-mile stretches and focus cameras elsewhere.
But the 10,000 is the event that gave us Lasse Viren, sprawled on the track oval after a fall, rising gamely and claiming his first of four career Olympic goal medals in 1972. The 10,000 is the only reason we have any idea who Billy Mills is. It’s the event that provided one classic duel after another-between Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, including a nerve-shredding 2000 Sydney Olympic experience, which Gebrselassie captured by 9/100ths of a second. Gallant Paul Tergat is the main reason why many of us will never think of a silver medalist as a “loser.” The 10,000 is why we became familiar with someone called “The Baby-Faced Destroyer.” It provided a 1–2 finish by a black African and a white African at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and a mutual and respectful celebration, with hands clasped above their heads, that will always be one of the most resonant political moments in the Games’ history.
In a 2008 Running Times article in which he selects five of the greatest 10,000m races, Roger Robinson notes that “the longest Olympic track race hasn’t been short on drama” and that “for the spectator, it offers a fascinating fusion of infinitely variable tactics within a rigidly unvaried structure.”
That’s part of what made Mo Farah’s 10,000m triumph not just the emotional high point of the 2012 London Olympics but every bit as exhilarating an athletic spectacle as Usain Bolt’s sprint heroics. With all the anticipation about strategies the assembled Kenyan and Ethiopian trios would mount to try and thwart Farah in front of his own crowd, with his own ability to deftly change tempos and unleash a kick from farther out than was the custom in the 10,000, every moment of the race’s 27-plus minutes provided edge-of-the-seat excitement.
Even a 10,000 that seems to tread water for 12 or 15 minutes can have rewards for the savvy viewer. On Distance Night in May, we scrutinized Rupp for any sign of weakness or fatigue (there wasn’t much), we studied his chief rival, 2013 world championships bronze medalist Paul Tanui, to see just how formidable he was (formidable, but not enough), and we suddenly had to factor in Stephen Sambu, a supposed rabbit who ended up staying in, changing the complexion of the race and turning in a worthy 26:54.61. Then, we got to see just how much Galen Rupp had in him. And how much he would destroy his own American record by. The exciting answer was “a lot” to both counts.
The 10,000 is not boring. Sometimes, anticipation is part of the tension.
Jordan, Distance Night’s director, says that when the meet began, agents were urging him to host a 10,000m and complaining that they were having to send their European and African athletes to Stanford University to find a decent 10,000. Still, the declining numbers of 10,000m races comes as a surprise. “I don’t think we anticipated that it would happen so rapidly,” he says.
The scarcity of track 10,000s, which Jordan partly attributes to Bekele’s record being “so good that it’s pretty much off the board,” is also “directly correlated with a number of athletes hitting the roads instead,” he says. “There’s probably a lot of good young talent that is bypassing the track entirely and going to right to roads, where the money is.” Lack of opportunity in the 10,000 could drive young Africans—and perhaps Americans—to the marathon even sooner than is currently the case.
Distance Night had a 10,000 this May because Coach Alberto Salazar told Jordan he was quite confident that Galen Rupp was in American record shape. But Jordan warns that it’s not etched in stone that he’ll have one each year. When the women’s 5000m is a Diamond League event and he wants to have a men’s 5000m as well, there may be no 10,000.
For now, it seems destined to be a museum piece at the Olympics and at championship meets. And if attention spans are as limited as Jos Hermens suggested, it may not remain a fixture there, either.