Freihofer’s Run’s U.S.-only policy was the right call

If you’ve kept track of the Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k for the last 10 years or so, you recognize
Brianne Nelson (4) won last Saturday's Freihofer's Run for Woman, in part because of the absence of runners from eastern Africa.
Brianne Nelson (4) won last Saturday's Freihofer's Run for Woman, in part because of the absence of runners from eastern Africa.

If you’ve kept track of the Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k for the last 10 years or so, you recognize certain trademark moments and elements.

The ever-awesome Joan Benoit Samuelson will say something inspiring at the elite athlete press conference.

Race director George Regan will rate this year’s field as the best ever assembled.

Somebody (not me) will crack open the ubiquitous boxes of chocolate chip cookies.

Marbry Gansle will threaten to spray the press truck with water as it passes her station in Washington Park.

And somebody from Africa will win the race.

But not this year.

Conspicuous by their absence on Saturday was the contingent of runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco, who won eight of the 11 Freihofer’s Runs from 2005-2015, a period in which race organizers aggressively pursued an international field.

With a purse of over $28,000 at stake, the Freihofer’s Run has been pretty successful at that.

This year, though, Regan and his staff at the USA Track & Field Adirondack Association backed off on the international component and restricted the prize money to Americans only.

As much as this development was a product of suggestion from the national USATF, it was also a sign of the times, as sanctions from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world-wide body that governs track and field and road racing, loom over Kenya and Russia. The IAAF will announce next Friday whether all Russian athletes will be banned, after a November report from the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) blasted the Russian federation for “widespread inaction” toward suspicious athletes that “sabotaged” the 2012 London Games.

Kenya, meanwhile, has been scolded repeatedly by WADA this year for dragging its feet in complying with the World Anti-Doping Code established in 2015.

Still, it appears that Kenya is doing just enough to skate through this year, based on statements in May from the IAAF that Kenya is on a monitoring list and its athletes can compete through the end of 2016 while their country gets its act together, however slowly.

In light of all this, I can’t blame the Freihofer’s Run for choosing not to bring all this smelly business into their race.

To be clear, the U.S.-only restriction initially was an effort to support the American runners in an Olympic year. USATF started nudging Regan in that direction two years ago, and it simply made sense, with the U.S. Trials set to begin on July 1.

You’ll see many of the elite runners from Saturday’s race running in events like the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. (although winner Brianne Nelson won’t be one of them; she took her shot at the Marathon in February and did not qualify.)

Because the prize money and sponsorships for professional runners is astronom­ically less than for other pro athletes, they have to cobble together whatever they can to sustain a career.

Many of the elite women who ran on Saturday probably would’ve never considered the Freihofer’s Run if they knew there would be runners from East Africa, which has been churning out the best distance runners on the planet for decades.

“I will be honest, with the focus being on Americans, as a professional athlete, you have to be selective,” Nelson admitted. “It’s always nice to be up against the best competition, but it’s also nice to know that when you come out for races, you have an opportunity to take home some prize money.”

Among those already suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, in November, is Emily Chebet of Kenya, a three-time Freihofer’s winner, including last year.

“The Russians are out, and now the Kenyans may be out,” Regan said. “This is 2016, for crying out loud. How can you not have drug protocols in place, for a country that has the best distance runners in the world? How could you not? It’s just inconceivable.

“When you add all these up, this is not a level playing field. The United States has had out-of-competition testing for over 15 years, and it’s rigorous. These athletes have to tell USADA where they’re going to be at all times. And if USADA sends somebody out and knocks on their door and they’re not there, guess what, they’re sanctioned. That’s pretty strict.”

The Freihofer’s Run was going to be U.S.-only this year, anyway, because of the timing of the Olympics.

But it also serves as a symbol of the larger issue at stake here. And that’s a good thing, too.

“I think all the attention [on doping] is good,” Nelson said. “Over the last four years or so, it needs to be a focus and it needs to be an issue, because we have to have rules and regulations. You can’t take away the glory of a win. Everything else is nice, but to cross that finish line and be first is great, because it doesn’t happen every day.”

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