Some have blamed performance-enhancing drugs for the loss of American dominance on the roads; others have criticized United States training methods; still others see a shifting of interest to other sports, like lacrosse and soccer. But the real reason for the decline is a failure of narrative.If the best explanation you can come up with for a sport's decline is the lacrosse explosion eating into its fan base, then it's fair to say we're not talking about a particularly popular sport to start off with.
Today, pick up an article about the New York City marathon and you’re as likely to read about a blind dog running with his septuagenarian master as you are a serious analysis of the race favorites. Even Runner’s World, which actually used to write about races, is now full of articles about how to tighten your abs and sculpt your behind. Imagine if instead of writing about the Yankees-Phillies World Series, sportswriters focused their attention on the Yankee fan who organized a Wiffle ball game in his backyard. Yet that is essentially what happened to writing about running: it lost its narrative.
The marathon may be an event, but at its heart it is a race — a competition among highly trained athletes. A man who has never seen a baseball game couldn’t possibly appreciate the beauty of the hit and run. But give him an understanding of the difficulty of connecting with a ball traveling at 95 miles per hour while another player is in motion as the ball is pitched, throw in all the nuances of the pitch count, the double play and the stolen base, and he might actually want to get out there and take a few swings. Add a long-simmering rivalry, a curse, bad blood and betrayals, and you’ve got a national pastime that draws the most talented athletes to its fields.
I think it's a lot simpler than human-interest stories crowding out an appreciation for the sport: running is boring. Practicing the sport or knowing the rivalries can only do so much when the strategy is so simple and the action so monotonous. I wouldn't care to watch any race that lasts more than three minutes or so, maybe five if unpredictable obstacles or challenges were included in the bargain. I don't know how true the complaint about the flood of human interest stories in running magazines is, because I wish to spend no more than 10 minutes or so a year consuming running media. And I was once a serious runner (relatively speaking)! If they can't get me to care, why should anybody else?