The Demographics of Distance Running
Why Is Running So White?
The common social currency for Sobomehin in Gary was basketball, and the extent to which it and football eclipse other sports (including, now, even baseball) in the black community cannot be overestimated. The skinny second-string high school wide receiver rattling around in his pads who easily completes end-of-practice bleacher runs rarely entertains the idea of going out for the cross-country team. "There's social pressure to play football and basketball," says Martin Beatty, an African-American who has been the head track and field coach at Middlebury College in Vermont for 24 years. Shawn Fenty, who co-owns the Fleet Feet Sports store in Washington, D.C. (and whose brother is former Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty), concurs: "Within African-American culture, if your kids don't play football and basketball, in a lot of communities, it's not respected."
That dozens of black Americans have become stars in sprinting events at the elite level perpetuates the durable stereotype that African-American runners, female and male, may run fast but they don't run far. As early as the 1920s, activists fought the notion that African-American track athletes were better suited to sprints than distance events or lacked the discipline to pursue the latter. In 1927, Edwin Bancroft Henderson, a mixed-race writer from Washington, D.C., who has been called the "father of black sports history," asserted that one reason "our boys have not been distance champions" is that white coaches lacked the "time and patience" to develop distance runners among black athletes who showed promise. Beatty, the Middlebury coach, says that when he was growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1960s and '70s, "the thought never crossed my mind to run distance. I never knew anything more than the 400; it was never made available to me. It's kind of sad. You still see it today. You don't see many African-American kids running cross-country or running the 800 and 1500, it's all the shorter stuff and jumping." Iilonga Thandiwe, a member of Atlanta's South Fulton Running Partners, believed to be the oldest black running club in the country, adds: "The reality is that obviously there has been segregation by discipline in track and field. Whether that's self-segregated or cultural, I think we have internalized some of those stereotypes. If, in fact, the distance is longer than 400 meters, that's something the white folks do."
One glaring irony is that the man who laid the foundation for the emergence and growth of modern distance running, Ted Corbitt, was a black American, the grandson of slaves. Corbitt, who died in 2007, was an unassuming man who didn't court the spotlight, but Bill Rodgers has called him the "grandfather of our sport." He competed in the 1952 Olympic Marathon, helped found the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), assisted in designing the first New York City Marathon course in 1970 (then finished fifth at age 51), and held U.S. records in the 25-, 40-, and 50-mile runs. He was inducted into the inaugural class of the Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1988. Thandiwe, a keen student of the political and racial dimensions of running, faults national groups like the RRCA for not making more of an effort to promote minority figures like Corbitt. "Where on the RRCA's Web site do I find out about this black person who excelled in distance running?" he asked. "He's all but missing from the RRCA's own history. I think that's a problem."
Sometimes, elite African-American distance runners have come to the sport almost by accident. Richard Cooper grew up in Lindale, Texas, near Tyler, hard-core football country. Cooper's primary sport was basketball, but early on, he had some success in the mile; by eighth grade he had run 4:51 and soon added cross-country in the fall. When he ran a 9:18 two-mile at the Texas Relays in his senior year, he attracted the attention of University of Arkansas's famed track coach John McDonnell and walked on the team the next year. Cooper eventually earned a scholarship and ran cross-country and track, winning the Southwest Conference title in the 3000-meter steeplechase three times (1987–89) and in the 10,000 meters his senior year (1989) before pursuing a pro career. As an African-American distance runner, however, he was a lonely man. "Every time I toed the line in high school," he says, "I was the only black guy in the race. Every time I toed the line in college, I was the only black American in the race. There were Kenyans—everybody thought I was one. John gave me the nickname 'Kenyan Coop.'" Two decades later, not much has changed for elites. African-American middle-distance runners Steve Holman and David Krummenacker were among the country's top performers in the 800 and 1500 meters from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, but since then, no American-born minority distance runner has emerged on the world stage.