Friday afternoon, when I should have been hard at work on AB's November issue, I instead found myself fuming over an article from Thursday's Wall Street Journal sent to me by our company owner. The article deemed younger athletes "The Slowest Generation," and accused my generation of being too apathetic about performance and competition.
"Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it's good enough just to finish," Ryan Lamppa, a spokesperson for the industry research group Running USA told the WSJ.
As a member of the generation in question, I took offense at this. I can't say that I have ever participated in a competitive race or "event," as this article denotes races like the Color Run or Tough Mudder, but that's more a reflection of my attitudes about spending money than competitive racing. I have completed many a "5K" and even a handful of "10Ks" on the streets of Madison, and never have I expected a medal for doing so. That's not why I run. I run because I enjoy it.
There, I admit it: I'm a recreational runner. But that doesn't mean I'm not competitive. I just know that the only way I'm going to be a gold-medal-winning racer is if I devote hours each day to training and conditioning. But that's simply not where my priorities are. I run to keep my body healthy. And isn't THAT what we're all supposed to be doing? Getting up off the couch, eating less and being active more?
Maybe my generation is lacking in competitive drive (For which our Boomer parents should own up to at least part of the blame, ahem), but I'm not going to get into the problems of Generation Y (Though this Huffington Post article does a semi-decent job) or any speculations as to why the U.S. hasn't won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004 (which really wasn't that long ago, was it?); I'm going to get into my problem with this article. Namely, the assumption that the slower average performance of younger racers is "emblematic of the state of America's competitiveness."
The article references a Running USA report that found the median U.S. marathon finishes for men rose 44 minutes from 1980 through 2011. That's median time, not average. That means that of all the men who ran a marathon, half finished with a time faster than the median and half less. Now, not just by my own conjecture but backed by Running USA's own data, I would say this slowdown is more attributable to an increase in participants than a decrease in competitive spirit. Here are a few more statistics from the 2012 Running USA report that the WSJ article didn't include:
• The number of U.S. race finishers has increased 80% since the year 2000.• Total number of U.S. running events reached an all-time high of 26,370 in 2012.• In 2012, the 5K maintained the #1 position of all race distances with 6.2 million finishers (another record number), claiming nearly 40% of all finishers in the U.S.• Mud runs, obstacle runs and color runs have grown exponentially in the past few years, and it is estimated that approximately 2 million runners participated in these non-traditional, adventure-type races last year.
What does this mean? More people are running. Period. We're not all elite athletes (by definition, we can't be), and we don't want to be, as is evidenced by the growth in more casual races. And what happens when a lot of not-particularly-athletic people get off their butts, get moving and show up at the same events as these true athletes? They bring down the numbers.
So yes, more race events are being driven by gimmicks and fewer people care about their race time, but it's not "emblematic of the state of America's competitiveness." No, it's emblematic of a generation hearing and heeding the call to eat healthier and be more active. Or at least be more active. We don't need trophies because it's not a competition; it's a lifestyle.
The competitive athletes are still present in my generation, and I have nothing but respect for their determination and athleticism. But I also have a great deal of respect for a generation that doesn't care if they're losers, wants to take care of their health, and simply takes enjoyment in being active.