Monday, 19 January 2015

Fan-ing The Flame

In a broader culture that values doing over watching (even if that culture doesn't actually practice what it preaches), being a sports fan tends to get a bad rap. And it's true that fans, with their sometimes excessive emotional investment in "their" team or favourite athlete, and their tendency to underestimate the difficulty of succeeding in sport at the highest levels, can be irritating to anyone with real skin in the elite sports game (i.e. athletes and coaches in particular). When a fan is serious and knowledgeable (when they have taken the time learn not only the technical side of their favourite game, but its history and lore), however, they can become, especially when massed within a community of fellow fans, an important resource, and, in some sports, an actual reason to persist for elite athletes themselves. As important as money can be in the pursuit of success, the existence of a community of non-elite or non-participating aficionados who recognize and affirm good truly good and bad performances alike, can be just as important an element in athletes' overall support structure-- call it the psychic or existential element. Top athletes make the sacrifices they do for the simple love of training and competing, and, for the tiny few, the material comforts; but, at almost any level, they also do it for recognition by the cognoscenti of their particular sport. (For proof, look no further than the fabulously wealthy and successful professional baseball player who considers his career a partial failure if he is not eventually inducted into that sport's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ohio.) This peer group can include anyone from Hall of Fame selectors to fellow players and competitors. But, it can also include the broader sporting public, made up of recreational players and non-participating fans of the sport. And the more knowledgeable, involved, and enthusiastic this larger sporting public, the more meaningful their attention and moral support can be to the athletes whose exploits they follow.

Runners in particular, in part because they are largely un- or under- remunerated, rely heavily on the attentions and meaningful praise of this larger peer group when it comes to their non-material sustenance needs. And they tend to know and appreciate the difference between informed and uninformed fanship. For instance, any runner who aspires to more than simply completing a race for completion's sake will know the difference between the well meaning but technically baseless praise of the casually athletic family member or co-worker (e.g. the one who says your terrible race is still great compared to their inability to "run around the block!") and the acknowledgement of a fellow runner or running fan who knows how much they may have improved to run that P.B., or who's familiar with the credentials of the athletes they beat in doing it (even if there were only 10 of them in the race). And any elite level athlete will admit, if pressed a little, that part of what they think about when they imagine achieving their goals in the sport is the recognition they will receive for their efforts from serious, knowledgeable fans and media (and, on the flip side, the way their success will stick in the craw of the ignorant detractors and the unfaithful-- perhaps the most famous example of which may be Sebastian Coe's angry "believe in me now!?" taunting of the assembled British press not 20 seconds after successfully defending his Olympic 1500 title at the Los Angeles Games in 1984).

These days, when serious competitive running has all but disappeared from the cultural mainstream (to the extent that it was ever there to begin with), the aforementioned knowledgeable fan and media have largely merged into a single entity, in the form of the specialty running magazine (usually staffed by recreational runners), or, more often, the running oriented social media-- athlete blogs/twitter feeds, Facebook groups, and websites like, or its would-be Canadian counterpart, Magazines now have somewhat interactive web presences (message boards and twitter feeds), and running websites host forums that can become free-for-alls of serious fandom (and much else besides). It is within these virtual spaces, as much as within the athlete's own local running community and training group (if he/she is lucky to have one), that today's runners achieve the vast majority of whatever notoriety they will ever experience. Some elite athletes will deny ever having anything to do with the most unregulated of these spaces (the infamous "message boards", for instance), while others will freely admit to spending time in them, and will even cultivate their own direct contacts with the larger sporting public through their preferred social mediums; but, all elites train and compete in the full awareness that such spaces exist, that their actions are being closely followed and discussed via them, and that their fame or infamy will eventually be inscribed within them, like it or not.

Does the running public that is created by and that acts through these vehicles, with the incredibly close virtual proximity they can produce, have any responsibility towards the objects of their interest-- the flesh and blood athletes themselves, whom most of them will never meet in person? Do they have any obligation to consider the effects of the things they may write about the athletes of whom they are fans (or whom of they may decide they are not)? No, I would argue, even if such responsibility were in some way enforceable in a media environment where masses of simple, anonymous electronic presences can earn millions for social media companies. If they choose to take such responsibility for the quality of their fanship, however, there are some simple ways in which they can do so, the simplest of which being to just know what they are talking about.

If you survey serious runners, you will learn that they all have developed favourite places to compete and favourite races/venues (for the very best, Eugene, Oregon and Olso Norway are often tops). Generally speaking, U.S. road races are more welcoming and exciting places for pros than Canadian ones. And nothing can compare with the knowledge and passion of Japanese distance running fans; their love of the sport easily penetrates the language barrier. Much of the quality of the experience that athletes are registering can be attributed to the technical expertise of the average fan. Athletes are truly energized by the knowledge that fans actually understand the finer points of what they do, and can tell a great performance from a merely good one. And they like fans who can put the sport above parochial loyalties-- who can, in other words, support and celebrate performances by athletes of any nationality. When in one of these environments, the difference is palpable.

Even in the virtual sphere, the level knowledge and expertise of fans make some spaces more popular with athletes than others. Begun in 1998 by running super-fans Weldon and Robert Johnson, had gone global by the mid-2000s, using using up-to-the-minute reportage (much of is culled from the mainstream press and obscure corners of the internet)on all things running, combined with profiles of top athletes (including, and most notably, East African runners, who had often been considered nameless and interchangeable within the broader running public),and other fitness-related miscellany. By the late 2000s, its "world famous" message board had become the epicenter of serious fandom, attracting everyone from Olympic legends and coaching gurus, offering their opinions, stories, and training advice, to high school freshmen looking for tips on how to increase their mileage. The sheer concentration of knowledgeable attention that it represented made "LRC" the arbiter of fame in the sport, its denizens specializing in distinguishing the merely good from the great and the authentic from the ersatz at every level of the sport. Visitors could be counted on to understand how, for instance, Galen Rupp's latest win fit into both the larger scheme of his own career and that of the global scene, and to be able to see why an anonymous 2:10 marathon performance was infinitely better than the overblown, self-promotional stunts of a Dean Karnazes. While impossible to measure precisely, the existence of undoubtedly launched, and sustained, the running careers of many runners at every level in the U.S. and beyond. In any case, it almost certainly made up significantly for the almost complete loss of attention by the local and national mainstream press-- which, at one time, actually covered running as a competitive sport. Now well into its second (and much more financially lucrative) decade, LRC has not been without problems from a fanship perspective. While its top page reporting has arguably become better than ever, owing it its vastly increased revenue generation, its unregulated message board is suffering the scourge of such fora everywhere-- relentless trolling and irresponsible anonymous posting that drive away or bury the serious contributions of genuine fans. There is still gold to found within it, but it must be mined from ever greater depths of increasingly noxious ore*.

Whether it is in the flesh at races and meets, or online via social media, fans of running can, if they choose, help to lift up the athletes whose qualities they admire (and likewise provide negative incentive to those they don't) by simply learning the finer points of the sport, the way the best fans of any sport have always done, and by finding ways to let athletes know that they understand and appreciate what they're looking at. Millions of people compete in running events across North America every year; yet, the general level of knowledge of the finer points of the sport as a serious competitive undertaking remains lacking, as compared with that of even the most obscure pro sports, in which there are often far fewer recreational participants. In Canada, knowledge of the ins and outs of competitive running can never be expected to rival that of hockey; but, given the sheer number of Canucks who lace up and go for a run every day, we have reason to expect a little more. And, best of all, becoming a better fan of the sport you do and love needn't cost you a lot of (or any) money. Thanks to medium that brings you this blog, and a million other things running related, including livestreamed competition at all levels almost every week (courtesy of sites like Flotrack and Runnerspace, along with our own aforementioned, you can immerse yourself in the sport for no more than what you already pay for your connection. You don't HAVE to do this, but wouldn't you WANT to?

*The would-be Canadian versions of LRC-- the now defunct but still searchable TnF North and the newer have, at their best, played a role vis a vis Canadian runners and their fans similar and equal to that of LRC, as has, in a more old media way, the print and online magazine Canadian Running. Sadly,, now the almost exclusive venue for online running fandom, began succumbing to the same forces that undid the LRC message board before ever having had a chance to achieve the latter's greatness. This has been due largely to its decision to adopt LRC's commercially driven no-registration policy on its message board-- which, while good for the bottom line, has proven bad for encouraging knowledgeable fanship, particularly among younger participants, many of whom will never have encountered and an interactive social media space that wasn't used preponderantly for weak attempts at humour and other forms of narcissistic self-indulgence. It soldiers bravely on with its high quality top page coverage, but its true potential to create a fan base that can genuinely support Canadian athletes the way LRC has managed to for American runners remains as yet unrealized.