NYT Review: A Sport Comes a Long Way in ‘Free to Run’, Daniel M. Gold

Free to Run” is an idiosyncratic account of the rise of long-distance running over the last 50 years, viewing it not so much as sport as a social revolution shaking off the tyranny of running federations that limited participation. Amid glimpses of Jim Fixx, Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit, the director Pierre Morath tells the stories of Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon; of Steve Prefontaine, the greatest American long-distance runner before his untimely death in 1975; and of Noël Tamini, whose Swiss running journal, Spiridon, urged European runners to hit the road.

 The film’s best segments describe the extraordinary growth of women’s running. When Kathrine Switzer first ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, women were still banned from competing; after the race’s organizer, Jock Semple, learned she was running in it, he tried to rip her racing bib off and remove her.

Any movement eventually becomes a market, yet “Free to Run” disappointingly punts on that angle. When the documentary recalls Prefontaine’s fight for top runners to be paid, for example, Nike is introduced as a start-up company but is never discussed as a global powerhouse with questionable labor practices.

Mr. Morath does include the debacle of 2012, when the New York Road Runners club and the Bloomberg administration first insisted on running the New York City Marathon days after Hurricane Sandy, only to scrap it in the face of public revulsion. “Not everyone loves us,” one commenter notes, recognizing that a sport premised as open to all is now mainly a pastime for the well-off, especially considering travel costs and other expenses for international competitors. An examination of such issues would be welcome, but “Free to Run” prefers nothing more than an easy jog down memory lane.

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