Will Galen Rupp Finally Get the Respect he Deserves?

galen rupp

On August 4th, 2012, running in London’s Olympic Stadium, Galen Rupp won silver in the men’s 10,000 meter final, earning the first U.S. Men’s medal in a long distance track event since Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics, when Bob Schul won gold in the 5,000 meters and Billy Mills in the 10,000 meters.  Coupled, several days later, with Leo Manzano’s silver medal in the 1500 meters, Rupp helped paved the way to what is arguably the best American distance running performance at an Olympics, where every race from 800 meters to the Marathon saw an American performance of at least 4th place.  Before the Olympics, there was question as to what role Rupp played as an ambassador to a new era of American running.  This reputation was born in the underworld of internet message forums and has since found life in mainstream running culture.  Now with a silver medal in hand, Rupp’s role and place in American running history has forever changed, but will public opinion give credit where credit is due?

Since Schul’s and Mill’s performance in 1964, international distance athletics has drawn from a more populated and organized talent pool, one that has grown more competitive and difficult for American runners to succeed.  There has been shifting blame for this lack of success over the years, to the superior genetics of East African distance runners, to the inferior mileage and interval-laden training of the American runners, to the gaps in social-economic motivation that African runners would have to compete well vs. American runners:  Africans run as way out of poverty and destitution.  Genetically superior Americans stray away from running and into one of the big-3: Baseball, Basketball, or Football.  At a grassroots level, American cannot compete with the per capita numbers that a country like Africa can, leaving a smaller talent pool to choose from and put at the starting line of international competition.

But Galen Rupp has succeeded despite these archetypal restrictions, and has done so in a manner that was done in a way that is distinctly American, and in stark contrast to the harsh conditions of Africa that was thought to hold the key to international success.  By chance, American running legend Alberto Salazar has been the protégé to Rupp since his freshmanyear of high school and Central Catholic in Portland, Oregon. At the time a soccer player, Rupp reluctantly started running at the behest of Salazar, who was the team’s cross country coach.  At the time also coaching the Nike Oregon project Rupp reaped the benefits of alter-g treadmills, sleeping in a hyperbolic chamber that simulates the affects of altitude, and other gadgets and gizmos that were given to Salazar by Nike as a way to give his athletes every possible advantage that might be had by state of the art technology.

Rupp rose through the ranks and last year ran the 10k in Beligum in an American record of 26:4800.  At this year’s Olympic trials, he beat Bernard Lagat for the first time ever in an Olympic Trials record of 13:22.67, surpassing fellow Oregon University alum Steve Prefontaine’s record by 13 hundredths of a second.  Even with the American record, and faster personal records than legacies of running such as Prefontaine, there was reluctance to place Olympic expectations on Rupp.  American distance runners before him have tried and failed.  As international running grows more competitive by the year, there were questions as to Rupp’s ability to end the medal drought.

The criticism of Rupp is that he is coddled and privileged, a poster child for the “White Collar vs. Blue Collar runner” debate that exists in the seedy world of internet message boards, where threads questioning whether a cross country course is “Rupp Certified” mocks Rupp for not being as tough, or “Blue Collar” as his competitors, where they again question his toughness after his road race debut at New York City Half Marathon in 20120, due to a mask he wore to protect himself from exercised induces asthma. This despite his time of 60:30. They question what he says in interviews, his mannerisms, his voice inflection, they question his perceived slight of his competitors when he won both the 10k and the 5k at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials.

Throughout the Olympics, Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson posted several “Conversations” in which they commented on the ensuing and ongoing track and field competition at the Olympics. In it, Nicholas Thompson reveals his true feelings about Galen Rupp:

I like Rupp. But there’s also something off-putting about him. During the qualifying rounds of the trials, he refused to shake the hand of someone who had finished just ahead of him. When he won the finals, he spat and scowled. Lagat, meanwhile, hugged the man who finished just ahead of him in the qualifying rounds; and he smiled and pointed cheerfully at Rupp after losing by a step in the finals.

The disdain that Nicholas Thompson feels for Galen Rupp is not unlike the disdain you see written by the anonymous and ignorant on the internet message boards that I am loathe to even mention (though, ok, I do frequent, of which I am also loathe to mention).  The rhetoric isn’t exactly the same: Thompson draws from a larger, snootier Vocabulary. But they are born from the same place: insecurity and jealousy.

Thompson cannot understand Rupp.

So Thompson wants Rupp to fail.

Watch an interview with Galen Rupp and you will understand his personality a little. He’s tepid. He’s not charismatic. But he’s not exactly boring. He’s normal.  But on the track, damnit he’s a competitor.  The person who finished ahead of him in the qualifying rounds at the trials, out ran Rupp at the tape, considered an unsportsmanlike tactic.  The scowl you see after Rupp won the race? It’s not to spite his competitors. It’s a continuation of the personality that lives through him on the track, and in direct contrast to the Galen Rupp you see speaking to the cameras. 

In a sport where your feet do the talking, the camera offered a brief glimpse into the fact of what kind of feet they were dealing with: fierce, fearless, and here to win.  After Galen won silver he mentioned how he was hesitant to previously speak publicly about his intentions, but it was the fruition of a dream that was years in the making:”It’s something me and Alberto have been talking about since I was in high school — to put Americans on the podium in distance races in events that have always been dominated by Africans,” Rupp said.

It was the scowl of a winner, and who had every intention of wanting to end the drought of Americans on the Olympic podium, and the confidence that he would be the person to do it, while helping prop up other Americans, too.  What’s more, Thompson makes it seem as if Rupp ignored or condescended to those who finished behind him. Far from it. Yes, he was in a sort of spell from having won the race, but he broke from that long enough to slap hands with Lagat and Lopez Lomong, the other two Olympic qualifiers in the race. If this display was vague as to his intention of his support for other American, he was more explicit after winning silver in the 10k.

If I could be an inspiration to others, that would be the greatest compliment ever. And h
e did. Three days after running the 10k, American Leo Manzano won silver in the 1500 meters.  The message behind Rupp’s Spit and Scowl is clear: The Americans weren’t here to play nice. They were here to scowl their way to the Olympic podium. Thompson can’t bear to see someone he cannot explain achieve those aspirations. This is circular, defeatist logic: If someone like Galen Rupp could be explained by Thompson, then he wouldn’t be good enough to be Galen Rupp.

In a way, it took someone inexplicable like Galen Rupp to end the Olympic medal drought, and, it could be argued, lifting the psychological burden off of his American competitors from achieving a similar feat, much the way Britishman Roger Bannister became the first person to break 4 minutes in the mile, only for his countryman, John Landy, to break 4 minutes in the mile less than two months later. Thompson calls Bernard Lagat, now an American, and previous bronze and silver medal winner for Kenya, “The smoothest and most beautiful runner I’ve seen,” and lauds his “genuine” personality and kick as the key to Olympic victory.  Rupp, in Thompson’s words, “has a slightly awkward lean while running. Also, when Rupp talks about his training, it’s all about intensity.”

Rupp doesn’t uphold Thompson’s standard of superhuman physical and personal qualities that he sees in Bernard Lagat, who he pegged as the gold medal winner in the 5k.  Gladwell responds to Thompson with a more reasoned approach about both Lagat and Rupp, accounting Lagat’s graciousness for his competitors due to already making his name and earning the privilege of being both happy and competing.  “I’m not sure that being nice is the way to beat the Kenyans and Ethiopians,” says Gladwell. To no avail.

To Thompson, Rupp is damaged goods.  In Thompsons’s words, “Rupp doesn’t always act exactly the way I want athletic icons to act.”  With his “awkward forward lean,” he doesn’t look the part either. Thompson would rather a superhuman athlete that he can admire be the American on the podium because his inability to relate to that person doesn’t make him a threat.  To Thompson, Rupp is, like Thompson, a fractured runner. His “flaws” stand in contrast to what he is supposed to represent as an Olympic medal winner, and thus an icon for American running. Rupp is the modern equivalent of the Little Engine that Could, the Ugly Duckling that blossomed into a Swan, et cetera; Thompson was never able to overcome his flaws to become Olympic champion, so he doesn’t want Rupp to overcome his. He wants Superman to swoop down and save us all.  Here’s the problem: Superman doesn’t exist.  Yes, Lagat beat Rupp in the Olympic 5,000 meter final, but wasn’t able to win a medal for the United States.  Rupp, made ordinary by all his “flaws,” was the one able to accomplish the extraordinary.

Ok, so I’m picking on Thompson. In his defense, he may have been taking the perspective of a Point to Gladwell’s Counterpoint as a way of balancing opposing sides of view that exist about their points of topic.  Also, Thompson may neither reflect nor be an extension of a widespread belief structure involving Galen Rupp, and might argue that, if he does believe it what he is saying, that they are his beliefs, and his alone.  But the internet rhetoric that is now endemic has been brewing for far too long to believe that the similar thoughts brewing to the surface of the mainstream is just coincidence. Heck, the handles that exist on the message boards may have been written by Thompson himself.

Either way, the conversation between Gladwell and Thompson is indicative of a larger conversation about how we view our American Running icons that takes the sides of Sensibility vs. Corrosion; Empathy vs. Judgment; Support vs. Self-Defeat. We should recognize our Icon’s ability to be flawed, divisive individuals while supporting what they stand for and have accomplished.  Has Rupp been fed with a silver spoon by Salazar? Is he given an unfair advantage by all the gadgets and gizmos that Nike provides? Who cares?  Rupp was given every advantage and opportunity to succeed, and he succeeded. We should champion that accomplishment.  In a sports culture where success is synonymous with doping, Rupp is a clean athlete who found success in a program that worked for him. It may not be a training program of running uphill, both ways, while being chased by a pack of lions, or whatever myths we believe of why the East Africans deserve to win more than the Americans do; the point is the program was individualized to Rupp’s criteria for success. Africa may have a larger talent pool to choose from, but if Americans cultivate their select talent we can compete at the same level the Africans can. Rupp is a manifestation of this thinking. He found glory in an Ameican running culture that accepts failure as a way of doing business.  What you think about him doesn’t matter.  How’s that for the American dream?

The internet is not all fire and brimstone. Amidst the sea of hate, there are people making a case for the kind of reasonable thought which may help change the tide of public opinion.  In a Letsrun.com message board thread entitled, “Why the Rupp Hate?” a user by the name of A Duck (in homage, I suppose Rupp’s alma mater, the Oregon University Ducks) has some words for those who would cast the first stone against Galen Rupp:

hose that slam him ought to be looking in the mirror and asking themselves…what is it about themselves that they are such insecure losers that continuing to bash Rupp holds some sort of sick appeal for them…Again, it has been said that “perception is projection,” the Rupp bashing on this board says everything about the bashers, and nothing about Rupp.

“A Duck” speaks to the self-perception of those that would bash Rupp, how their corrosive rhetoric says more about themselves than it does anything about Galen Rupp.  The same could be said about American Distance running for the past 40 years.  It’s finally time we stop looking down on ourselves and start talking about how, not if, we are going to succeed on the international scene.  “A Duck” makes a strong case for why need to support Galen Rupp.  Galen Rupp will succeed despite what you say about him.  He doesn’t need you.  But wouldn’t it be great if we decided to lay down our arms and embrace Galen?  Hasn’t he done enough already to win over our support?  American distance running should be in the business of winning races, not popularity contests.  Galen wins races.  We should support this achievement.

Time will tell as to what History has to say about the legacy of Galen Rupp.  That perception is in part dependent on Galen Rupp succeeds on the international scene in the years and Olympics to come.  It’s neither wise nor fair to compare him to the American running greats of the past; his personal bests are faster than Steve Prefontaine’s, but both existed in different eras, running to the top of their respective competition fields that grow faster from one time period to the next .  Steve Prefontaine also has the benefit of nostalgia working in his favor.  Killed in car crash in 1975, his legacy in part due to our collective wonder at what could have been. In past years, Rupp might have left some of his races wondering what could have been. At this year’s Olympics, Rupp won Olympic glory. Rupp is.  He’s not the next Steve Prefontaine. He’s the first Galen Rupp.  During Prefontaine’s reign, competing teams created t-shirts that had a red Stop Sign and the words “Stop Pre” written in white.  They later came to be a symbol of Pre’s dominance and are now worn in reverence to his running ability.  In that same spirit, I hope to have the final word on “anti-Rupp” rhetoric: Stop-Rupp.

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