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Bill, Frank, Joanie & Ted: New York Honors 4 Marathon Icons

(but how about preserving it?)

By Roger Robinson for Runner’s World
Published -September 19, 2013

Bill, Frank, Joanie and Ted - four heroic and historic superstars of the American marathon - will be inducted into the New York Road Runners Hall of Fame in November, it was announced today (September 19). With such beloved icons, there’s little need for a press release, almost no need for surnames.

Rodgers, Shorter, Benoit Samuelson, Corbitt – the running boom, the running industry, and the whole thriving phenomenon of the American marathon were built on them, and they are deservedly honored. The only icon missing is Kathrine Switzer, who was unavailable and will be inducted next year. Fred Lebow, Grete Waitz, Alberto Salazar, Miki Gorman and Nina Kuscsik were inducted in the first two NYRR classes in 2011 and 2012.   

It’s a good move by NYRR to put the sport’s history on parade for a new generation of runners who, inevitably, may be hazy about what this magnificent quartet achieved. It is also an adroit way of recycling the sport’s most charismatic names, who have all previously won the NYRR’s existing Abebe Bikila Award.

It’s hard to fault this selection, whose contributions to sport and society go deep. 

Bill Rodgers is the world’s most accessible celebrity, who has spent most of his life using his quirky innocent charm to bridge the gap between the elite runner and the humble jogger. [See Roger on Running: Boston Billy from 16 to 65]

Frank Shorter’s gold and silver medals are surpassed in Olympic marathon history only by the legendary Bikila. Shorter then brought his intelligence and insight to many aspects of the sport. [See The Greatest Races: Men’s Marathon]

Joan Samuelson expanded the boundaries of physical capability for all women when she ran out of the dark tunnel into the sunlit Olympic stadium. She continues (like Rodgers) to be a winning competitor. [See The Greatest Races: Women’s Marathon]

The late Ted Corbitt used a marathoner’s quiet persistence to achieve as an Olympic runner, co-founder of RRCA, physical therapist, and pioneer in course measurement, pushing in his gentle way through the racial barriers of that era.     

Corbitt may be the most significant, for doing so many things that educated society in the later twentieth century about the full capabilities of African Americans – in intellectual innovation and organisational leadership, as well as physical achievement. 

“Having such a meaningful group at our race will affirm the return of New York after the cancelation in 2012,” said Mary Wittenberg, NYRR CEO, in a telephone interview this week. As well as the induction ceremony/news conference, there will be banners of the Hall of Famers along the marathon’s finish, she said.

“The marathon straightaway is going to be ‘Champions’ Row.’ By celebrating the past, we want to inspire the present, and so elevate the future,” Wittenberg said.

I asked about the protocol by which inductees are selected. In my other lives in the academic and literary worlds, I’ve seen problems develop when the processes and criteria are not transparently equitable.

“The early classes are obvious classes, so have been chosen mainly by George Hirsch [Chairman of the NYRR Board] and me. With the George Hirsch Journalism Award, we have now brought in the previous honorees, Dick Patrick and Amby Burfoot, as advisors. With the Hall of Fame, there is no nomination and selection process yet, but we will move toward formalising it,” Wittenberg said.

She described the criteria for selection as influence on New York Road Runners, contribution to the New York City Marathon, and contribution to the wider running community. She commented with passionate admiration on this year’s honorees.

“Ted Corbitt was the founding father of running in New York, important in so many ways. Bill Rodgers won our marathon four times. Frank Shorter was pivotal by running against Bill in 1976, the year the marathon was transformed as an event. Joan Samuelson has been at our marathon in important years like 2001, and is increasingly inspirational.”

Wittenberg did not touch on the concern that Samuelson and Rodgers are inescapably more closely associated with another marathon. (Clue: His nickname is Boston Billy.)

Bill, Frank, Joanie, Ted (and Kathrine)...If the list sounds familiar, that may be because it was the exact same list for the inaugural year of the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, New York, in 1998. Rodgers, Samuelson and Switzer have also had their days in the sun up the road in Boston, which has no formal Hall but honors a selection of past champions each year. Then there’s the Road Runners Club of America, which thought of it first. The RRCA Distance Running Hall of Fame has been going strong since 1971, inducting Corbitt in 1972, Shorter in 1977, Rodgers in 1978, and Samuelson and Switzer in 1984. And, as I said, all five have won the NYRR’s own Bikila Award, established in 1978.

So New York is not breaking new ground. And thereby hang some questions about the purpose and effect of such halls of fame; questions about whether we are focusing on celebrity and neglecting the real history; and questions about how our strange, intensely localised, village-by-village sport does its business, and in this case sets up its icons for public worship. So far as I have established, each Hall seems oblivious of the others, or at least there has been no consultation between them. It’s a bit like the way I was brought up to think of St George as the patron saint of England, and only recently found out he’s the patron saint of 18 other countries.

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RRCA NOTE - former RRCA Board members wishing to donate photos, journals, etc. may ship the items to the RRCA for archiving.  The RRCA will maintain key materials from archive collections in our off-site storage facility as part of our on-going efforts to preserve distance running history

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