With the 2016 Olympic Team Trials marathon just hours away, there are as many story lines and topics of discussion as there are entrants in the races, which begin at 10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.
That time has become an issue in the past 10 days or so as it’s become apparent that L.A. is going to be blanketed by unseasonably warm weather (can everyone say el Niño?) that could see the temperatures rise from the lower 70s at the start to above 80 by the finish. Organizers even thought of moving the start earlier, as they did for the open L.A. Marathon last year in similar conditions, but then decided it was unnecessary.
The real reason, though, is that NBC is broadcasting the race live, and reshuffling their programming just wasn’t even going to be on the table unless some Armageddon-like comet was going to crash down on the course around noon PST. In a day when networks can dictate when major sports play their games, “flexing” even the almighty NFL slate to suit rating purposes, a minor sport like running, which has to beg for whatever scraps of TV coverage it can get, is only going to ask “how high” when the Peacock says “jump.”
I’m no expert, but it seems to me the start time, which means people like me on the East Coast will be watching at 1 p.m., is fairly meaningless in terms of ratings. Maybe I’m wrong, but my gut feeling is most of the people watching the Trials broadcast will be runners, not casual sports fans, and they’d tune in even if the show started at dawn on the East Coast.
But the suits at NBC who study the Nielsen ratings think they know better, and so the runners’ performances, and perhaps even their health, take second place to TV dollars. Who knows, maybe some program director is secretly salivating over the prospect of getting a “money shot” of a tearful midrace curbside DNF a la Paula Radcliffe in Athens, or even an excruciating stagger to the finish like the seemingly endless one Gabrielle Andersen Schiess produced in this very city at the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. I’ll bet dollars to donuts the footage of those two incidents is already cued up in the control room, ready to roll.
One could make the case that conditions at the Olympic race in Rio in August will be similar to the current ones in L.A., so we should try to pick the six athletes who can best handle them. If that’s the case, maybe we should release a few thousand Zika virus-infected mosquitoes along the course as well. But seriously, America’s best showing in recent Olympic marathons came on the broiling Athens route in 2004, where Meb Keflezghi and Deena Kastor nabbed silver and bronze respectively. And where were the Trials that year? The women ran in St. Louis, under moderate spring conditions, while the men’s team was picked in February in Birmingham, Alabama, finishing in snow flurries and temperatures barely above freezing. So much for specificity in the selection process.
The pros in major sports like baseball and football are used to playing at less-than-ideal times and having their schedules jerked around at the last minute because it’s those incredible TV contracts that indirectly line their pockets with obscene amounts of money. Elite runners, on the other hand, are, with the exception of a very few at the top of the endorsement food chain, just getting by, and even the Mebs and Deenas of this world probably make less than a reserve infielder or NFL special teamer. In a sport where there isn’t another another game tomorrow or next week, but where the next opportunity to compete may be four years down the road, optimizing the athletes’ chances to excel, rather than boosting tentative TV ratings, should have been the primary consideration.