Fastest time doesn't win the marathon

Marathoner ‘a’ winner; Nike looks like a loser
C.W. Nevius (SF Gate)
Thursday, October 23, 2008

Arien O’Connell was vindicated Wednesday morning – sort of.

The fifth-grade teacher from New York City ran the fastest time in Sunday’s Nike Women’s Marathon, but she was told by race officials that she didn’t win because she wasn’t among the “elite” runners who were given a 20-minute head start.
O’Connell was unhappy – and as corporate sports giant Nike quickly learned, she wasn’t the only one.

Faced with a blast of criticism from all over the country, Nike issued a statement Wednesday saying that it “recognizes Arien O’Connell as a winner.”

Did you catch that? It says a winner – not the winner.

Even though she ran 11 minutes faster than the “elite” woman who was given first place, O’Connell’s career-best finish will exist in an odd parallel universe where, no matter how fast you run, you can’t win the race unless you’re among a special few.

Having been blindsided by a public outcry, Nike is trying to fudge its position by trying to have it both ways. This isn’t really an apology. It’s more like corporate spin. For a company that prides itself on championing the cause of women in sports, and encouraging them to challenge their limits, this is a pretty tepid response.

“This is supposed to be about empowering all women,” O’Connell said. “There were so many opportunities for an inspirational message.”

Frankly, at this point O’Connell is no longer all that angry. Maybe that’s because she’s been too busy answering calls from media who want her to tell her story, from ESPN to the New York Times.

“I was upset on the day of the day of the race,” she said. “But it’s been so great to hear from everybody. Just reading the comments (on from the people who felt outraged has been amazing.”

Nike, whose “Just do it” TV commercials often stress the accomplishments and achievements of women, was in a bad spot. There actually is an argument to be made for having a separate start for the elite runners, but given the results and finish times, this was clearly not the event for it.

In the statement, Nike officials said that “because of their earlier start time, the runners in the elite group had no knowledge of the outstanding race Arien was running and could not adjust their strategies accordingly.”

Yeah, Arien, why didn’t you tip them off that you were going to run the race of your life?

“We can all see that something was not handled well,” said Amby Burfoot, editor-at-large for Runners World magazine, which posted O’Connell’s story on its Web site and had a huge response from readers. “Race organizers should be prepared for all possibilities, including that someone who started 20 minutes late could win.”

Nike may have been surprised that O’Connell popped up out of nowhere, but people who read about the controversy were equally taken aback by the sports corporation’s tin ear for public relations. “I told them they certainly passed up a chance to have a huge ad campaign that would inspire citizen runners everywhere – and maybe even sell some shoes,” said Bonnie West in an e-mail she sent to me from St. Paul, Minn. “But as it was, unless it was fixed, I was switching brands.”

Fans not happy
There also were lots of comments posted on the Nike running blog.

“It is very clear who your female winner was,” wrote one. “Where’s her recognition for such an awesome feat?”

Nike replied with corporate boilerplate.

“Nike has a proven track record of supporting athletes,” the statement read, “and we’re proud to be able to honor Arien and other athletes who surpass their goals and achieve great accomplishments.”

Oh, and they’re also sending her a first-place trophy. Not that you won first place, Arien, but you’re still a winner, OK?

A better suggestion would have been to declare O’Connell the overall race winner and say that the woman who finished first among those who got the head start was the “elite group” winner.

The real issue is that the Nike Women’s Marathon, a wonderful event that raises money for cancer research and a draw for some 20,000 runners, is not a race that attracts world-class runners. In Boston, New York or Chicago, the prize money for winning the marathon can exceed $100,000, and the best runners on earth, men and women, need special consideration. No one objects to putting them at the front of the pack or giving them a head start.

No truly elite runners
But the Nike marathon in San Francisco doesn’t have anyone running a world-class time – which would be something around 2 hours and 20 minutes – for the 26.2-mile course. Only O’Connell broke 3 hours – and she’d never done it before.

“I think that’s what it comes down to,” O’Connell said. “There is not a real definition of what it means to be in an elite field.”

That’s where the Nike event got in trouble. If it had recognized that there was no need for an elite pack, and everyone had lined up and run, the fastest time would have been the winner. No argument.

In fact, that was the other part of Nike’s announcement Wednesday.

“Learning from the unique experience in this year’s race,” it said. “Nike has decided today to eliminate the elite group from future Nike Women’s Marathons. Next year, all runners will run in the same group, and all will be able to win.”

So nice job, Arien. All you have to do is run the fastest again next year, and you really will be declared the winner.

C.W. Nevius’ column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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