Why is the USA relatively poor at distance running events?

The USA tends to dominate the sprints and 400m events at the Olympics and World Championships. However, for distance running events (800m and above), it’s a different story.

For example, in the 1500m, the last American gold medallist in the men’s race was in 1908- and there has never been an American winner in the women’s 1500m. The most recent US gold medallist in any distance event was Jean Benoit in the women’s marathon in 1984- and you have to go back to 1972 to find the next.

What are the reasons for this relative lack of success?

I’d say that Americans are pretty good at it. It’s just that East Africans are a whole lot better than anybody else.

Hey now! Just because we haven’t won Olympic Gold every single year doesn’t mean we’re poor overall. Frank Shorter, 1972 winner, got the silver in 1976, and a teammate finished fourth in both 1972 and 1976. At this Olympics we walked away with a silver and a bronze.

Downfalls for U.S. marathoners have been at varying times poor showings from world class runners or just good runners being outclassed by stellar runners from other nations, cough Kenya cough cough. In 1984, for instance, Alberto Salazar was the world record holder, but his Olympic place was a mere 15th. Between then and now we’ve just hit sort of a slump; when you have the 100 or so best runners from all the 6 billion people on the planet competing once every four years or so it’s just going to happen occasionally.

Times fluctuate a great deal between marathoners from one race to the next, as they did with Salazar. This year in the trials the American men came in first, second, and third with the fastest finishing times in trials since 1984, but in the Olympic race the first place trials finisher, Alan Culpepper, came in 12th. Some world class atheletes never win the gold. Grete Waitz (Norway) won the NYC Marathon 9 times but only one Olympic silver. Bill Rodgers (U.S.) won the NYC and Boston marathons four times each but never won any Olympic medal at all.

This is true in other sports, too. A guy who I office with is the former No. 1 ranked pole vaulter in the world; he once held all four indoor and all four outdoor NAIA titles, set seven indoor records, and was the first person to ever clear 19 feet. However, between boycotts, injuries, and just plain bad luck, he never medaled at the Olympics. C’est la vie.

In Athens a Brit won both women’s 800m & 1500m. A Japanese woman won the Marathon.

In 1980 Moscow games 2 British men won 800m & 1500m events and one of them won a silver and gold in those events in LA 1984.

There seems to be no good reason why the US could not excel at these distances if the British can.

I stand corrected: eleven times world record holder, three time American record holder. There was a period in the 1980’s when he and and Sergei Bubka (Ukraine) went back and forth with a new world record every week. Bubka almost didn’t medal at Seoul in 1988, but came back to win the gold; my friend didn’t medal.

Perhaps Americans just don’t care for distance running as a sport? To me, anything above 800m seems a bit pointless - run x laps and then have a sprint finish. Why bother with the x laps?

Anyway, the US doesn’t do particularly well overall at the Olympics in comparison with other rich Western countries, if you measure success in medals per capita. They have getting on for five times the population of each of Britain, France and Italy, but only won a little over three times as many medals.

Having said that, there’s probably a statistical fallacy lurking there, because however big your population you can only enter a certain number of athletes in a particular event.

As grienspace stated, the US does fairly well on the world stage (Olympics, World Championships, etc.). But I think there’s a combination of things for why both US men/women have not won a lot of gold medals in medium/long-distance races.

  1. I think there’s a premium on speed in athletic competition within the US. Many of the US’s best sprinters were also superior athletes in other sports (remember Bob Hayes - 100 meter sprinter and wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys?). Whereas there hasn’t been much incentive to concentrate on long-distance running (other than track and field). Besides, it hasn’t been until relatively recently that track and field stars could make decent money in their specialty.

  2. Part of it is training - medium/long distance runners need to maintain a (relatively) quick pace for a sustained period of time. In other words, endurance. This requires athletes to train constantly. Since there’s a tendency in US athletic to emphasize speed, then there’s less incentive to train as rigoursly/constantly as other athletes from other countries. In other words, there’s no net economic benefit for someone to specialize in medium/long distance running. Maybe marathoners - but it’s usually only the elite that mek any kind of money.

  3. Tied into #2 is training environment - I suspect that altitude might be a contributing factor for why East Africans (Eastern Highlands cover much of Kenya, Ethipoia, Eritrea, Tanzania) do well long long distance running. Likewise for Morrocans, Algerians, and Tunisians in medium distance running (Atlas Mts.)

  4. Part of it is also economic - but on the part those athletes in other countries. Maybe one reason why athletes from certain countries dominate at certain distances is that athletes of any stripe - be they sprinters, middle distance runners, long jumpers, etc. - have incentive to be sucessful in whatever ability they excel at. In other words, being a successful marathoner is their ticket to a successful live. It might also reflect the need to emphasize a particular sport or ability that isn’t necessarily dominated by other countries. Why train and work on becoming a successful sprinter if other countries (like the US) put a premium on speed and have a much larger pool of potential sucessful athletes? May be countries like Kenya and Morroco emphasize medium/long distance runners to fill a niche they feel they can be sucessful at.

  5. Some would argue that it’s based on genetics. In other words, the reason that so many East Africans dominate long distance running has to do with some inherent ability for them to run longer distances. The same argument for sprinters - that there is some genetic component that enables West Africans to be the best sprinters in the world. However, that kind of argument doesn’t hold much weight in my opinion. There might be a genetic component, but a comprehensive study needs to be undertaken on certain populations (East Africans is too vague a category, as is West Africans) to isolate those elements that can be used to bolster the genetic argument. The “fast twitch/slow twitch muscles” that has been used to argue such a case - to me - is still riddled with too much noise.

One thing I would quibble with grienspace is the dominance of East Africans over long distances. The quibble is on what distances are we talking about. El-Guerrouj, from Morroco, won the gold in the 1500m and 5000 meters - first time that’s happened at the Olympics since 1924. Moroccans have been quite dominant in the medium range distances for a long time (Said Auoita, anybody?).

In addition, it’s been Eastern Europeans that have dominated the REALLY long distance events at the Olympics (the 50 km walk race, to be specific). The winner this year was a Pole who has dominated the event over the last 20 years. Granted, walking isn’t running - but if you can walk 50 km in 3:30 hours you are moving a quite a clip.

We Yanks have short attention spans. We just don’t have the patience to…woo, look at the time. Gotta go! :stuck_out_tongue: