Stop Worshipping Ryan Lochte When You Should Be Idolizing American Runners

The U.S. distance runners in London are awesome.

Hey, you! Yes, you, the one who can’t shut up about running when we’re at the bar. Stop lacing up your Brooks Glycerines and pay attention; Olympic track and field started today and we need to talk.

Running is hot right now; we are in the midst of a yet another running boom. Broad Street registration lasted just five hours this year; it took four days for 40,000 to sign up in 2011. The Boston Marathon’s registration format was changed last year after eager runners took all 30,000 slots in five hours; in 2008, registration was open up until before the race.

The current boom serves a ton of purposes. It’s a cheap way to attempt to get into shape, but you don’t really have to try that hard if you don’t want to. It’s a way to build camaraderie with friends or meet new people. It’s an excuse to dress up like zombies or splash in the mud or get sprayed with paint or whatever other sexual fetishes have been crammed into 5K runs recently. It gives people a goal to shoot for, and even the most out of shape people can go 10 or 13.1 or 26.2 miles if they go slow enough. (Last place at Broad Street this year was four hours.) What’s great about running is it can be a health kick or a lazy pastime, depending on how hard you can work. And, of course, it gives people the opportunity to brag to their disinterested friends for hours on end about the minutiae of their workouts and the importance of their most recent marathon.

There’s one thing this running boom doesn’t have: Icons. The 1970s running boom had guys like 1972 Olympic marathon winner Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers and Jim Ryun, all top runners on the world stage. The smaller 1990s boom had Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey as its standard-bearers; American high-school runners at the time were stuck idolizing Prefontaine again. The public face of the 2010s running boom is an overweight doofus wearing Vibram Five Fingers ambling down Kelly Drive in $250 worth of running gear.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being an overweight doofus in hundreds of dollars worth of running gear. That’s essentially me! (So as to not spread any rumors, I do not wear ‘finger’ running shoes.) But I shouldn’t be the icon of the running movement. We can idolize professional athletes so well when it comes to the four major sports but we can’t get excited about a runner?

Fortunately, there’s hope. Track and field started today at the Olympics, and the U.S. distance runners this year are quite good! They could be your idols. And, you have plenty to choose from.

Take Jenny Simpson, who actually won the 1500 meters at last year’s world championships in Daegu. I write “actually” because no American had won the 1500 since Mary Decker in 1983. (She wasn’t even Mary Slaney yet!) Check Simpson’s reaction:

All runners, and not just elite ones, look funny at the end of races. They’ve just run a long distance, after all. But very infrequently do you see wide-eyed disbelief from the winner of a race. Simpson came from sixth on the final turn to win.

And there’s something for everyone, no matter what type of athlete you’re looking to take on as a favorite. Do you like touchdown dances? When he won the NCAA Championships in the 1500 last year, Matt Centrowitz did the throat-slash gesture. (He was third at the World Champs in the 1500m!) Are you short? 1500m national champ Leo Manzano is five-foot-five. Do you love those heart-warming stories of athletes’ supportive parents? Marathoner Shalane Flanagan‘s parents helped her out and were kick-ass distance runners themselves. Fan of ninjas? 5,000- and 10,000-meter runner Galen Rupp sometimes runs in a mask (when pollen counts are high). 800m champ Nick Symmonds hung out at the local bar in his running clothes after the Olympic Trials.

And all of these people have more personality than Ryan Lochte. Surely you can find someone on the U.S. team to inspire you to gains in your own running. Or at least you can stop telling us about your most recent mud run for a few minutes.

More Olympics News

  • Ads from official Olympic sponsors McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are biennial favorites for their absurdity; there’s an excellent one this year where David Oliver, the American record-holder in the 110m hurdles, finishes a race and immediately drinks a Coke. Now we know why he missed the Olympics!
  • It’s another Official Olympic Partner that has the best ad in 2012, though. Proctor and Gamble’s ad for Crest whitening toothpaste is absolutely bonkers. It ends with the tagline, “You won’t just be the ex-girlfriend. You’ll be the one that got away.” That’s really depressing. I think women would like a toothpaste that helped them keep their boyfriends. Aren’t ads supposed to be aspirational?
  • The United States men’s basketball team was in absolutely no danger yesterday, setting a bunch of Olympic records (including points scored but not margin of victory) in a 156-73 win over Nigeria. “The last group in England with this many records was The Beatles,” was the line I read that now you have to know about. Another bright spot: Analyst Doug Collins, who moonlights as the 76ers coach when he’s not doing color for Olympic games. Collins has this avuncular basketball expert vibe going during his commentary. He makes smart, understandable analysis of games, but what’s great about his commentary is how much he genuinely loves the game. Here he is late in yesterday’s Team USA blowout: “It’s gonna be great to hear what the Nigerian coaches’ quotes are after the game. Some of these coaches are so colorful with their comments. I love to read some of the things they say after their teams have lost or won or whatever the game might be.” Collins loves basketball so much he’s excited for the post-game coaches interviews. In some ways it’s too bad he’s the Sixers coach; he might be my favorite analyst.

What to Watch

Friday: The women’s 10,000m final is today at 4:25 p.m.; Amy Hastings, Lisa Uhl and Janet Cherobon-Bawcom aren’t likely to be in medal contention, but seeing the Kenyans’ times (30:48.98 won it for Vivian Cheruiyot at the world champs last year) is enough to inspire you to get out there and do a 5k in 30 minutes.

And, hey, what about the judo medal rounds later today. Judo, “confusing MMA in robes,” is the closest you’re going to get to mixed-martial arts in the Olympics.

Saturday: Men’s long jump final at 2:55 p.m., men’s 10,000m final at 4:15 p.m. and women’s 100m final at 4:55 p.m.

There are more swimming medal races starting at 2:30 p.m. And do I really need to tell you to watch women’s trampoline at 10 a.m.?

Sunday: Will you get up at 6 a.m. to watch the women’s marathon Sunday morning? Probably not. But if you get up at 8 a.m. you can watch the end! Oh, yeah, and Usain Bolt vs. Johan Blake vs. some Americans (probably) in the 100m final.

The women’s three-meter springboard diving final is at 2 p.m. And Greco-Roman wrestling finals are also at 2 p.m. Watch both at the same time and get really confused.