Five-ring Circus

The Running Event That Must Be Added to the Olympics

a runner's torso about to break the tape at the finish of a race.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Issei Kato/AFP via Getty Images.

When the Olympics open on Friday in Tokyo, athletes from a whopping 339 events will be ready to compete in the delayed and controversial Games. But there’s one more event whose competitors deserve to be there, but aren’t: the half-marathon.

Of the myriad running events in Tokyo, three—the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and the marathon—are considered long-distance races. The men’s marathon, with its fabled roots in Greek history, has long been a crown jewel of the Games, traditionally closing out the final day of competition. Its debut with the modern Olympics in 1896 has been credited with sparking distance running culture in the Western Hemisphere, and 26.2 remains a bucket-list item for many. The other two races are familiar to 5K and 10K road runners (though the distances are run on the track in the Olympics). But notably absent is the marathon’s younger sibling, the forgotten middle child of distance running. The half didn’t get a world championship until 1992, and prize money often lags behind, so even without the Olympic snub, the half-marathon stars are already Solange to the marathon’s Beyoncé. It’s like living in a world where your only reading options are New Yorker cover stories or Infinite Jest, or where pants only come in Bermuda short or ankle lengths—sometimes your sweet spot is a breezy 300-page novel and a pair of capris.

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For one, it takes different skill sets to run the 10,000 meters (or 6.2 miles) versus running 26.2 miles at a slightly slower breakneck pace. The 10,000 finishes in a blaze of speed, with runners grinding down the pace from a mile or more out and finishing in a breathtaking sprint. (Gold medalist Mo Farah’s last lap in 2016 was a blistering 55 seconds.) The marathon proceeds mile after mile of even splits intermixed with brutal surges that chisel down the lead pack. Sure, some athletes are versatile enough to tackle both, but at that level of performance, the differences are measured in fractions, and the lack of an Olympic half erases some elite runners’ opportunity to compete at their peak.

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Take Zersenay Tadese. The four-time Olympian from Eritrea won bronze at the 2004 Athens Games for the 10,000 meters. But where he really shines is the half-marathon: In 2010, he broke the world record, and he’s captured five world championships at the distance. But double his race mileage, and he drops back in the pack of extremely fast people. In 2017, he was tapped for Nike’s Breaking2 project, an attempt to crack the two-hour barrier for the marathon distance. But Tadese had never run 26.2 in under 2 hours and 10 minutes, and he fell off record pace at about the halfway mark. He’s not quite fast enough for a 10,000-meter victory and not equipped with enough stamina to keep the lead for 26.2, but at 13.1, he’s dominant.

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Tadese isn’t alone. Kenya’s Kibiwott Kandie broke the half-marathon world record in December, shaving an astounding 29 seconds off the previous mark, but he’ll be at home during the Tokyo Games. Or American Molly Huddle, who holds the U.S. women’s half record but dropped out of both the 10,000 meter and marathon trials. They should have the opportunity to race for their medals at their best event.

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Another argument for elevating the half-marathon to Olympic status is its surge in popularity, at least in the U.S. Distance running has seen a huge bump in participation in the past decade or so, but the half-marathon’s growth has been particularly explosive—from 900,000 finishers in 2008 to more than double that a decade later, according to Running USA. (In comparison, marathon finishers ticked up from 425,000 in to 508,000 during that same period.) And women led that charge: In 2019, they accounted for 60 percent of U.S. half-marathon finishers. One of the best parts of the Olympics is being able to gawk at just how good these athletes are in comparison to your own performance. Almost anyone can run 100 meters, but almost no one can run it in 10 seconds. Many people have finished half-marathons; give them the joy of being able to marvel at the pros who can run it two or three times as fast.

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There’s likely snobbery and gatekeeping at play here, too. Venture into any running conversation online and you’ll see jabs at “charity runners” or “plodders”—not to mention distance running’s lengthy history of homogeneity and exclusion (the Olympics didn’t have a women’s marathon until 1984). But if they’re honest, anyone who’s run both 13.1 and 26.2 will vouch that the races are entirely different beasts, so the argument that they’re too similar doesn’t hold water. Some have called for renaming the half to its distance—21K—as a way to separate it from the marathon’s shadow. The cynical side of me also wonders if the half-marathon’s treatment as an “easier” race is intertwined with women’s dominant participation at the distance, which typically requires a less demanding training schedule for recreational runners (but not for elites trying to scrape out every second).

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And it’s not even a logistical headache for Olympic organizers: Run them on the same day, on the same course, as a multitude of small and midsize races do year in and year out. Give the countries with deep distance benches more chances for their stars to shine.

In my 20-plus years of running, I’ve (slowly) raced distances spanning 5K to 100 miles, and the half-marathon may be the one I despise the most. It’s like a 5K and a marathon spawned a devil child: It’s short enough to demand speed and make you push your pace, but with an endurance threshold that’s guaranteed to be a sufferfest. But buried in that dislike is a deep respect for a distance that is both challenging and gritty. The half-marathon, and the people who dominate it, deserve a shot at Olympic glory.

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