Q & A with Frank Shorter: 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist, 1976 silver medalist
Now 60 years old, Shorter lives in Boulder, Colo., and works with the private equity firm that bought Elite Racing, the company that produces world-class running events like the Rock’n’Roll Marathon series. In a recent phone conversation, Shorter reflected on how his event has evolved over the past 36 years and how the 2008 US marathon team might fare in Beijing.
How has the Olympic marathon changed since 1972? I don’t think it’s changed for the athletes except the professionalism. When I won, there was no prize money. Technically, people weren’t supposed to get appearance fees. One of my law partners and I wrote the trust fund that opened up the sport to prize money. It’s called the TAC Trust. We got it passed in 1981. It’s the concept of athletes being able to win money, put it in an individual trust, and get it out on a schedule that would make them competitive with Eastern Europeans who were government supported. That evolved into professionalism. But in ‘72, winning a gold medal wasn’t a financial sinecure that it can be now.
Has that been a good thing? I think it all depends on the individual. It has become very good for people who want to use the notoriety in a positive way, beyond their own financial gain. My way was to do things like evolve the trust fund; to be the first to do a commercial on television to open that up for endorsements; I was the founding chairman of USADA, [the United States Anti-Doping Association]. It’s allowed me to do things to help the sport evolve that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
I was thinking more about the money issue. If you’re totally passive, you’ll get well paid for a certain amount of time. If you’re active, you can go on and do positive things that don’t have much to do with money.
What are some positive things that the sport needs in the US? A nine-person board for USA Track & Field. They have 31 members on the board now. A powerful CEO, and a transparent process, that can actually talk to the press.
Can Olympic marathon success provide the clout necessary to make those changes today? I don’t know. As with anything in the US, we tend to respond best to a crisis and I think we’re in one right now. I mean, when Michael Johnson loses his gold medal because every other member of the relay team has now been busted? I’d say things aren’t looking too good.
Back to the prize money. Today we have the World Marathon Majors series, which is extremely lucrative. Do you think there is still a need for an Olympic marathon? It’s valuable socially because there is still no event where, on one particular day, an athlete has to be able to compete – and know they will be competing against the best athletes from the rest of the world – and has nothing to do with money. The Olympics are still where the bragging rights are in the sport. But when agents came in, the whole tenor, dynamic, and interpersonal relationships among the elite athletes, changed.
How? The athletes don’t associate with each other in the same way. It’s become more like bike racing. If you’re on a certain team, you’re friends. Anyone who leaves and goes to another team is the enemy. Steve Prefontaine and I were very good friends and training partners and we had different sponsors, but it was before agents so there was no influence where, if you wanted to come out and spend a month training with me at altitude to try to get better for the next Olympics in ‘76, you could do that, with no pressure. Now, any agent out to make money is going to be impacted by his athletes associating with some other agent’s athletes. But I think the athletes have that choice, and they know that.
What about all the runners at Mammoth Lakes who train together – some of them have different agents yet they are all in the same group. Yeah, but I think it still has an influence on the frequency with which they race. Should Ryan Hall have run in London? I don’t know. I wouldn’t have. He placed fifth.
How did that hurt him? Well, psychologically.
He said he learned a lot. Yeah. He learned that fifth is fifth. The last time I looked, fifth was still fifth. I’m not sure I’d want that down so close to the Olympics. And the whole world wasn’t there.
Let’s discuss the prospects for the US marathon team at the Beijing Olympics, both men and women. Deena [Kastor] has shown to be very solid. I’ve tried to talk to her through the media, saying she has to be a little less predictable in the way she races. She always goes out with the lead group, lets them get away, and then tries to regain ground. She knows that. And everyone’s talking about Ryan Hall after he ran 1:02 in the second half of the men’s trials in Central Park. For anyone who’s run in Central Park, they know [how hard that is]. Now it’s just a question of: can he duplicate that and peak for the right day? The dark horse, I think, is Dathan Ritzenhein who is every bit as good but more injury prone. If Dathan is in one piece, and if he can get back in shape, he’s got a chance to do well. The way I handicap any marathon is: once the final rosters are released, I look to see what people have done – not in the marathon, but in their shorter-distance performances. I can come up with 10 people and say the three medalists will come from those. I think Deena, Dathan, and Ryan could all be in that 10. It’s really a matter of who has a good day. The percentage of having a good day at any major marathon, historically, is 30%.
Your 1972 victory helped trigger the running boom in the US. If an American were to win gold medal in the 2008 Olympic marathon – I’m not going to speculate on that.
Have you seen the Olympic marathon course in Beijing? No. You look at it when it’s there. The heat will be a factor. The smog will be a factor. I say to that: you can do it. Certain athletes are going to be able to tolerate those conditions genetically better than others. You just have to hope that you’re one of those people. I don’t think there’s any acclimation that can go on. In 1968, many people aren’t aware that Jim Ryun spent the entire summer at altitude in Lake Tahoe to get ready for Mexico City. Then he went to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and that was even higher. Jack Daniels – who is still one of the pre-eminent exercise physiologists – will tell you, Ryun was one of the few athletes on the  Olympic team that didn’t adapt to altitude. Given that, Jim’s performance in Mexico City was unbelievable. [Ryun took silver in the 1500m, running it in 3 minutes, 37.8 seconds.] Based on that, I can extrapolate. And in my own experience, I run very well in the heat compared to other runners. I knew I could run better than anybody when it was 90 degrees. The same applies to smog. We had the national championships at UCLA in the 70s, and that was every bit as bad as Beijing.
You qualified for two events in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Did you run both events in both Games? In the first one I did, and placed fifth [in 10,000 meters]. In the second one, I fractured my left ankle in February and couldn’t take time off to heal. I won the marathon trial, won the track trials, but realized that the ankle probably wouldn’t hold up. I didn’t want to risk it so I just ran the [Olympic] marathon and got it fixed after.
Why don’t we see more marathoners doing multiple events? Is it a thing of the past? Agents. The big payday in the marathon is much more important than running 5K and 10K and even – as I did – 3,000-meter races to really sharpen up for the marathon. Because you’re not getting the big bucks for it.
Athletes leave those decisions to their agents? They use that: ‘Oh, it’s not really my decision.’
I’ve never heard anyone pin the responsibility on their agent as to why they don’t run. Go to a press conference and count the number of runners who use the word we, rather than I: ‘We decided.’
I always thought “we” meant the coach and athlete. (laughs) Yeah, well, it’s not the coach.
Who are the most influential agents? My perception is that coaches are not as strong as the agents. I think the agents override the coaches.
Can you think of an example? It’s just my opinion. And look at the [low] frequency with which [American marathoners] race over in Europe, on the track circuit. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the [marathon] world record is held by someone who sets records on the track.
Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia is the world record holder for men. How does the agent factor into – There, they’ve decided they run on the track and just run one or two marathons a year when it matters. Look and see how many marathons a year Gebrselassie has run. You have to do the track racing to be able to race a marathon really, really well.
So how does the agent factor in? Those agents know enough to keep them on the track and not over-race them in the marathon.
Because the big payday is to win a marathon. Mm hmm
What else are you doing these days? I’m still a spokesperson for USADA. I still travel to events. I’ve done commentary for several of the Olympic Games – the last one being Sydney [in 2000]. After Sydney, I took over as chairman of USADA. [He left the post in 2003.] Yeah, I had to get back to earning a living.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.