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Athletics needs to pay attention to other sports and their ability to draw in fans. Running marathons like time trials is not going to do it.

The second fastest marathon runner in history, Kelvin Kiptum, from Kenya will run the 2023 Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 8. Meanwhile, world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge, will take in the Berlin Marathon on Sunday, September 24. Apparently, big appearance fees will keep the two from competing against each other — shades of Kipchoge versus Kenenisa Bekele, a potentially great rivalry that never transpired.

NN Running Team photo: Bekele (L) and Kipchoge (R)

The World Marathon Majors, which comprises six of the largest marathons in the world, operates the way it wants to but the format is denying great sporting rivalries. For the sport to attract more spectators and online viewers, these rivalries need to take place. Fans are not moved by glorified time trials.

Kipchoge holds the current marathon world record at 2:01:09 from the 2022 running of the Berlin Marathon. He is going to run Berlin to defend his title and that is totally reasonable and expected. Meanwhile, Kiptum owns a best of 2:01:25 from the 2023 London Marathon that was run in April. The 23-year-old shocked the running world when he ran the Dec. 2022 Valencia Marathon in his debut clocking 2:01:53. He now owns the second and fifth-fastest performances in history. Kipchoge has run the first, third, sixth, and seventh-fastest in history. Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele owns the fourth-fastest all-time at 2:01:42 from the 2019 Berlin Marathon.

Rivalries that drive interest

Tennis is known for nurturing intense and entertaining rivalries, for example:

Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert rivalry that took place during the 1970s and 80s. More recently there was Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal, and Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe in the 1970s, a decade later, Boris Becker versus Stefan Edberg in the 1980s and ’90s, and Steffi Graf against Monica Seles throughout the 1990s.

In hockey, the debates are endless about who was better Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, or Wayne Gretzky. Basketball: Michael Jordan versus Magic Johnson and Johnson versus Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James. In football, who was better Pelé or Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Rinaldo? Where does it end? Imagine if money kept these athletes out of games when their teams faced each other. How about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson? How about Manny Pacquiao versus Juan Manuel Marquez or Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier?

Few sporting competitions blew up like the Thrilla in Manilla; Ali versus Frazier, or the Rumble in the Jungle. Marathon running had an opportunity to take the 1970s running boom and develop the top end of the sport during the 1980s. The marketing brains in the US and Europe should have looked when Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran stride for stride in the 1982 Boston Marathon and had a eureka moment. No one got the hint. The race was so exciting it was Christened with its own name “Duel in the Sun.” A book was written about the event. People continue to talk about it. Beardsley, when he publicly speaks references the race.

The following year, New Zealand’s Rod Dixon hunted down Brit Geoff Smith for 42 kilometres, fighting off a leg cramp during the New York City Marathon. Dixon passed Smith over that final 200m and won “The Ravage in Gotham?” — anyone? The finish line photo is one of the most iconic in sports history. Smith, laid splain in the chute, spread eagle, Dixon with his arms held high in victory. Apparently, no one saw these indelible moments as an opportunity to generate fevered pitch fandom.

Bekele and Kipchoge — a missed opportunity — never faced off at the height of their marathon prowess. This is likely due to the fact that a marathon event can only pay out one very large appearance fee at a time. Perhaps each of the six Marathon Majors and other larger events should move appearance fees into the prize purse, and award the top seeds performance bonuses based on head-to-head competition of top-seeded runners. Athletics fans decry the waning of the once-great sport — is anyone listening now?

The fans will take Kiptum versus Kipchoge over Kipchoge versus a clock-on-a-car any day.

Head-to-head racing needs to be the primary focus of running events, not time achievements alone or the riding off of previous performances for appearance fees.

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