The Staten Island Runner

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March 13, 2000 

NYRROArs   by Glenn Ribotsky

An ongoing commentary on issues in the Staten Island and metropolitan road racing community, complied through the auspices of the New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation.


One of the below-the-radar issues that’s been popping up on running forums from time to time lately has been the controversy over scarce spaces in popular races being taken up by charity runners—those who commit to train and run the event for a cause (such as those involved with the Leukemia Society’s Team-in-Training), collecting a certain per-mile stipend for their organization along the way. As this method of fund-raising has become increasingly popular over recent years, the number of such charity race participants has expanded to a major fraction of all entrants in some larger events (particularly marathons), to the point where non-charity runners have claimed that such individuals are taking up limited spaces that should go to “serious, competitive” runners who are actually attempting to race. Lurking behind this issue, though, is probably a more fundamental one—the reasons that road race events are held in the first place. On one side we have what may be called “race purists”, who say that first and foremost, a road race is a race, that its fundamental reason for being is to provide competition, whether it be against other racers or the clock, and that all other considerations are subservient to that function. On the other hand we have those who believe that very few races can survive primarily as competitive events, that most events, other than the elite championships, that present themselves in such a way as to draw primarily “hard core” participants do so in numbers too small to ensure their continuations, and that most road races need other reasons to justify their existence. Increasingly, directors do not even consider planning events that do not have an originating reason beyond staging a competition. Most often that reason falls into the realm of charitable fund-raising, be it for a running organization or a cause much larger in scope.

Some of you may remember (okay, probably nobody remembers) a column that appeared here way back in August of 1998 on this subject, tweaking the New York Road Runners Club for staging an event to celebrate the completion of a third water main into the city. The gist of it was that runners are a tolerant group, but they get awfully tired of events held for what they perceive to be dubious reasons (especially when they get little in the way of awards or “sign-up merchandise” in return), and they don’t like to feel they are being treated as cash cows. It’s a little tougher to be critical when the events are ostensibly held to benefit a charitable cause, and yet . . .a growing chorus of runners—and not only the “hard core” serious local-class athletes—seem to feel that there are too many events on the calendar that are there just to raise money. It’s not politically correct to say this too loudly—do you want to be seen as against youth track programs, or scholarship funds, or memorials to those who gave their lives performing their job duties?—but there’s been some growling that at these type of fund-raising events the runners themselves, and their performances, are overlooked, or even ignored, in favor of attention paid to large sponsors, or efforts to garner publicity for the cause. The growling gets louder at events that are priced higher than others and/or offer few amenities (i.e. T-shirts, refreshments) in the name of keeping as much of the race fee as possible for the charity, or that skimp on administration, especially accurate result tabulation and/or award categories.

This situation is felt quite keenly in the metropolitan New York area, (perhaps most particularly in Brooklyn and Staten Island, although the New York Road Runners Club has also been moving in this direction) where it seems every race is a fund-raiser and/or memorial (most often to deceased civil servants). It has progressed to the point where runners who have gladly given over their race fees for charity events over the years now feel pressured to do it every few weeks or so, and feel embarrassment if they beg off a few races, even if they are nursing slight injuries or are just plain tired. (No one wants to be looked at as not contributing to a worthy cause.) Moreover, the race fees, often higher than those at non-charity events, start to pinch the pockets of those not as affluent (even when they are tax-deductible). It has gotten so that some have quietly been asking if every untimely passing of someone who runs must be memorialized with a race, or, possibly, if some other type of non-running-related fund-raising could be done. Still, many who argue for the continuation and indeed expansion or charity races point not only to their success as money earners, but of the difficulty in getting media and sponsorship attention to races that do not involve such causes. They point out (quite accurately) that, in what is perceived as a fringe sport insofar as the media and general population are concerned, one of the few ways to get participation and attention is to appeal to the charitable instinct.

Some critics, such as Joe Roche of the Astoria Park Track Club and the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, have challenged those who have been involved with charity races (including this writer) as having ulterior motives beyond the feel-good-giving-of-themselves aspect; specifically he’s noted that many organizers of such events are the type of involved and ambitious community activists who use the events to make connections and network, either for their causes or their own advancement, and his charges may have merit. Joe is currently trying to persuade MAC to develop a long-distance Grand Prix series with minimal fees to appeal precisely to the small purist group; the purpose of the races would be competition, ability development, and local and national ranking, with no plans to solicit sponsors or raise funds, even for the maintenance of the races themselves. He has indicated he wants his races to be races, first and last. Only in such situations, he feels, will the runners be assured that the full emphasis will be on the competition, and that the event will not become subservient to the wishes of sponsors or organizational administrators. He argues that otherwise the sport becomes like tennis or golf or figure skating, sports in which only the traditional championship events escape being staged solely to promote a cause or sponsor. These sports already have far too many nobody-gives-a-damn events, he claims, which cheapen and demean the athletic achievements of accomplished athletes; that is the direction he sees road racing taking.

Without knowing how far that analogy can be pushed—running is a sport with far less television appeal and nowhere near as affluent a participant base as those others, and affords average competitors much greater opportunities to perform in the same events as its elite participants—it seems as if more of an effort should be made on the part of the sport’s movers and shakers to strike a balance between events staged solely or at least primarily for the purposes of competition, and those designed as fund-raisers. While the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, it does seem that administrative considerations result in the two being hard to reconcile in an individual event—the more emphasis placed on one, the less tends to be placed on the other. Perhaps Joe Roche’s concept of a distinct race-circuit to appeal to the hard-core is viable, with more casual runners opting for less competitive events, and perhaps not, but race directors and organizers would probably do well to get together in their geographic areas to make sure they don’t overload on one type of event or the other—a lack of event variety likely leads to reduced participation at all of them, especially as the novelty of new races wears off. (Of course, race directors would do well to get together and be more cooperative in putting on events in the first place.)

A little side note—on February 23, it was reported through the Runners World Magazine on-line service that Mary Wittenberg had been “promoted” to the newly created position of Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer at the New York Road Runners Club; previously she had served as Executive Vice President/Administration since joining the NYRRC in 1998. She will also now serve on the Club’s Board of Directors. The report indicated that she would now be responsible for all aspects of the Club’s day-to-day operations, with all departments reporting to her. This development was not unexpected--as readers of this column may remember I speculated that the hiring of Ms. Wittenberg in the first place was to groom her for eventual succession to the presidency of the Club. I have predicted on a number of occasions that current president Allan Steinfeld, in ailing health and beset by challenges to his administration by Club activists contrasting his style and abilities with that of the deceased Fred LeBow, will likely step down within a few years. What is interesting in light of the Club’s struggles with its public image and member relations (other subjects often written about in this space) is that this development, while widely reported in various media, has not found its way onto the NYRRC web site, the spot (one would think) that would be the easiest and fastest to communicate it to the membership. (Ironically, one of Ms. Wittenberg’s original mandates was the handling and improvement of member relations. It remains to be seen whether it will be mentioned in the NYRRC’s monthly mailings, in the pages of New York Runner, the Club’s house magazine, or at the upcoming meeting of the Club Council.) At the least, it looks as if the Club does not deem it important for the membership to know about changes in its administration (or that the membership wouldn’t care); at worst, it is actively trying to hide such changes from its immediate constituency. (It certainly has not been included on the NYRRC web site’s listing of press releases.) Even if it were neither of these and just an oversight, one would have hoped that given the Club’s contentious recent history, it would have taken purposeful pains to get the word out to its members as quickly as possible. It’s not a good sign for an organization that has been recently claiming to be more “member friendly”.

Glenn Ribotsky
Chair, New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation
84 Vogel Loop
Staten Island, NY 10314