In the extensive coverage surrounding the 40th running of the New York City marathon this past weekend, more than one piece questioned whether marathon races had lost their elite edge. An op-ed piece in the New York Times on Saturday bemoaned the change in coverage from the pure, rarefied competition between the elite runners to human-interest stories about less professional athletes who competed. Cameron Stracher, who wrote the piece, argued that the long lag in U.S. marathon champions was due, at least in significant part, to this shift in coverage and "narrative," which lessened the public's excitement and inspiration to reach for the top levels in the sport.
"As the running boom matured," Stracher wrote, "the story line shifted from the race itself to the race as 'event.' ... The marathon may be an event, but at its heart it is a race--a competition among highly trained athletes."
A similar theme ran through an article that ran a few days earlier, under the title "Plodders Have a Place, But Is It in a Marathon?" A number of elite runners are apparently irritated at the slow runners and runner/walkers who, they believe, have watered down the significance of running, or finishing, a marathon. "It used to be that running a marathon was worth something," the cross-country coach at the college of New Rochelle was quoted as saying. "There used to be a pride in saying you ran a marathon, but not anymore."
On the other hand, marathon organizers argue that the increasing participation levels and appeal of marathons, driven by those amateur runners, is what's kept the sport healthy and alive.
Ah, the dilemma of exclusiveness.
If I'm vaguely amused by the complaints, it's because they mirror so closely a debate that's raged for decades--sometimes unwittingly--in the pilot community. In the very early days, flying an airplane really did take an excessive level of both risk-taking and talent. So to be a pilot was to be part of a very exclusive club. You suffered greatly to get there, but then you got to wear your wings with immense pride.
It's still a hefty effort to get a pilot's license, but the difficulty has decreased significantly over time. First came electrical systems and more reliable engines. Then came the advent of the tricycle gear airplane design, which made takeoffs and landings far easier and safer than they were with the old, skittish tail wheel designs. But the advent of the nose wheel airplane also prompted grumbling among the "old" set about how now anybody could be a pilot.
The club was becoming less exclusive. On the other hand, it was also becoming a booming industry. The explosion of general aviation in the 1950s and 1960s was due in no small part to the fact that so many more people felt capable of becoming part of it. Industry advocates have long dreamed of creating airplanes and systems safe and easy enough that every person in America could become a pilot and have access to a small airplane, because it would transform both the size of the industry, and the size of the support it receives. One would think that pilots, who depend on that support, would echo this sentiment. But even today, there's resistance among a lot of pilots at the thought of flying becoming, well ... pedestrian. After all, if everyone can do something, it's not such a point of pride that I can.
But I would caution marathon elitists to be careful what they wish for. Familiarity is critical to engagement, engagement is critical to audience, and audience is critical to sponsorship and publicity. Stracher argues that stories of great Yankee baseball rivalries, focused only on the playing field, is what inspires people to want to play ball. I disagree. I think the fact that people do play ball, in sandlots and schoolyards and on the streets of New York, is why there is such an audience for watching the best of the best battle it out.
For years, the sponsors of air racing--the fastest sport on earth, where pilots fly almost 500 miles an hour only 40 feet off the ground, in 90-degree bank angles--have struggled to figure out why they can't get more than a tiny audience to watch. Why is it that NASCAR races, which have many of the same elements, but less speed and risk, are so much more popular? Answer: because almost everybody owns a car. Hardly anyone (less than 0.1% of the population) owns an airplane. Millions of people can imagine themselves zooming around a NASCAR track. Very few can identify with a race pilot's world.
By the same token--as more and more people have taken up running and long-distance running, more people can imagine themselves sprinting across that finish line and can identify with the pains, injuries, and disappointments of a marathon champion. That there are now many more wannabes is actually a good thing, in terms of the long-term survival and health of the running and marathon industry.
But there's also something else at play, which Stracher alludes to when he notes how "the running boom matured." Everything is new only once. Back in the days of the barnstormers, when aviation itself was new and few people had been exposed to it, flying had a romantic appeal to the public that it will never have again. Pilots today are not held up as high as the heroes of old, when few people had even experienced flight.
Familiarity may bring engagement, but it also famously breeds contempt. Or at least a tempering of the initial romantic ideas and breathless excitement it once generated. Just like any human romance, if our interaction with something continues on long enough, it matures from a passionate love affair into something more like a marriage. Not that we can't still get weak in the knees from time to time, but movements, like relationships, change and mature. And that's okay, because maturation brings other benefits.
Back in the 1970s, running as a popular sport was a brand-new and exciting wave. Running shoes themselves were a a radical new concept. And those leading the charge inspired an entire nation to get off its duff and hit the streets. That's impressive. So now it's a mature sport, with many more participants. That's known as success. So, OK. Maybe that also means it's not quite as exclusive or exciting as it once was to run a marathon at all.
But running it in 2:09 is still an Olympic feat. Nothing takes away from that. And with six American men finishing in the top ten in Sunday's race, it's hard to argue that the changes in the sport and how we write about it have killed our competitiveness. Whatever the reason for the dearth of U.S. male champions between 1982 and Sunday's victory by American Meb Keflezighi, it's obviously more complex than that.
As for the complaints about the slower participants ... there's clearly some line that has to be drawn at the end, so the timers and volunteers who operate a marathon can go home. But I'd hesitate to make broad statements about what's going on at the back of the pack. The saying about being kind to strangers you meet, because you know not what burdens they carry, comes to mind.
I sat next to a man named Donald Arthur at a Bronx Rotary Club dinner last spring who had completed more than 30 marathons, en route to his goal of completing a marathon in every state. He'd only started participating in marathons recently, after a heart transplant gave him life and the ability to exercise again. He wasn't young, and even with his new heart, he couldn't run the 26 miles. Given his age and health, it was amazing he could finish a 26-mile course at all. But his zeal for the races was electric, even if he experienced them differently than the top competitors. For Donald, a marathon is a competition not against other humans, but against fate, death, and limits; a chance to prove and celebrate, over and over, that he is fully alive again.
I asked him what his favorite marathon was, and his eyes lit up like Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. "Oh, New York!" he exclaimed. "I mean, the one outside of Denver was so beautiful, to be in the midst of those hills and nature all around you like that. But New York has all those people, cheering you on! I wave at them, and they wave back, and it's like nothing else." Donald has time to wave, of course, because he's not trying to break a six-minute mile. Does Donald Arthur's participation diminish the New York Marathon? I don't think so. He's just experiencing and running a different race, against a different opponent, back there at the back of the pack.
A marathon is a race, to be sure. But is it an elite event only for "highly trained athletes?" I don't think that's written in the definition or rules anywhere. The original marathoner, after all, was a Greek soldier simply trying to deliver a message. And I'm not sure there's anything wrong with a marathon meaning different things to different people. It's almost inevitable, with 40,000 participants.
Perhaps the best way to view today's city marathons is as a more efficient version of the multiple levels in other sports: Little League, sandlot and stickball games, NCAA leagues, pick-up Saturday games, semi-pro leagues, farm teams and the Major Leagues all wrapped up into one. No wonder they're such a party. And for those who still yearn for something more rarefied; the excitement of watching only the best of the best compete without anyone else in the backfield, running still offers its own equivalent of the World Series. It's a small, highly exclusive club known as the Olympics.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Neuroscientist James Fallon discovered through his work that he has the brain of a psychopath, and subsequently learned a lot about the role of genes in personality and how his brain affects his life.
In 2005, James Fallon's life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer's and using his healthy family members' brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers' scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.
The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?
Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.
The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:
Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.
Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes took a facet of campus life that’s often decried—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—and turned it into a powerful leverage point in the pursuit of social justice. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.
But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”