Marathon Majors Have BCS Moment

N.Y.C Marathon
N.Y.C Marathon

It was handled quietly, and few noticed, but the New York City Marathon had its own version of a championship controversy on Sunday afternoon.

A couple years ago, race directors at five of the world's biggest marathons got together and agreed to give away the largest single prize in all of road racing. The male and female runner that earned the most points by placing the highest in the races over a two-year period would take home $500,000 each.

The idea behind it all was to get more people interested in the collective sport and to encourage the world's top talent to participate in the most high profile races with more frequency.

Unlike the BCS, it boasted a simple formula for first, second and third place finishes. But simplicity and a lack of data got the system in trouble on Sunday.

Viewers of the NBC broadcast of Sunday's race—the final race in the schedule—were originally told that Kenyan Gete Wami would win the marathon majors prize if she placed first or second. If not, Irina Mikitenko, who won both the 2008 London and Berlin marathons, would be declared the winner.

Turns out, that wasn't true. A fifth place finish or better would have given Wami—who won the prize for the 2006-07 season—at least a point in the standings, with Mikitenko sitting out.

But when Wami finished sixth (zero points), the two were tied. The marathon directors admitted that their simple system did not have any definitive rules when it came to ties, other than how the two competitors faced in head-to-head battles.

Wami and Mikitenko ran against each other in two marathons in the majors and each had beaten each other once.

New York Road Runners spokesman Richard Finn said that in a conference call, which took place soon after the elite runners were presented with their medals, the five race directors of the marathon majors unanimously declared Mikitenko the winner of the prize.

Mikitenko, they concluded, had better average times and earned her points in fewer races.

"Are we completely pleased and happy it came down to a vote?" Finn asked. "No. But we will be reviewing the rules and evaluate when we meet again later this year how we can make the system better."

Mikitenko probably deserved the prize. She was the better runner. Yet Wami did exactly what the marathon majors was partly created for. She ran in the maximum amount of races, which is the key to making the marathon a better spectator sport.

The answer to solving the problems of the simple system? Just ask the BCS folks. More complexity.

Questions? Comments?