Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Strange Legacy of Sydney Maree

By standard measure (the stopwatch) Sydney Maree is the greatest male runner in the illustrious history of the Villanova program. His accomplishments are the stuff of legend: a world record over 1500 meters (3:31.24 in August 1983), American Records at 1500 meters (3:29.77 in 1985), 2000 meters (4:54.20 in 1985), 3000 meters (7:33.37 in 1984), and 5000 meters (13:01.15 in 1985, at the time the third fastest time ever). He won the first 5th Avenue Mile in 3:47. His mile PR (3:48.83) is faster than those of Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O'Sullivan. Same for the 1500. He won multiple NCAA championships over 1500 and 5000 meters. We was an All-American in cross country. In 1981 he was the first Black to receive the South African Athlete of the Year award. Yet, despite this resume, Maree is routinely not placed at the top of the list when Villanova greats are considered. What accounts for this incongruity?
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Sydney Maree, despite the best times produced by any Villanova runner, was considered even in his heyday to be a poor racer. He was viewed as a runner with freakish natural ability and legendary workouts who was a terrible tactician in races. He was Steve Holman before there was a Steve Holman. He was Alan Webb before there was an Alan Webb. Consider his tactics in the 1989 World Indoor Championship 1500 (won by Marcus O'Sullivan). Maree bolted immediately to the front, did all the work for 1400 meters with Marcus tucked neatly behind, and was promptly passed by three runner over the final 50 meters. He finished out of the medals, despite making ther race for everyone else.
Maree posted staggering times, but won very few important races. Perhaps the most impressive race he ever ran he did not win: covering 5000 meters in 13:01.15 in chasing Said Aouita to a 1985 world record (see video below). He was inconsistent. He himself felt unappreciated. On the international circuit he was insulted when Steve Scott offered encouragement to his friend Eamonn Coghlan rather than supporting him, a fellow American. He was considered thin-skinned.
Perhaps this anecdote captures the sentiment: Steve Cram, the British world record holder, was asked in the lead-up to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles what he thought of the threat Maree posed to his own chances at the Games. Cram replied: "He runs one good race in seven, but he might get lucky." What an unfair legacy for a man who ran 3:29, 3:48, 7:33, and 13:01.

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