Tone deaf and worse

11/18/2021, 6 p.m.
We were stopped cold by the remarks of the Richmond Marathon’s longtime lead coordinator of elite athletes, who, in an ...

We were stopped cold by the remarks of the Richmond Marathon’s longtime lead coordinator of elite athletes, who, in an interview with the Free Press, offered his thoughts on race organizers not giving prize money to this year’s winners.

The coordinator, Thom Suddeth, said in an article published on Page A11 of this week’s edition of the Richmond Free Press that while he admires the talents of the elite runners — many of whom are from African nations and regularly sweep the men’s and women’s first place awards and prize money — the marathon is “basically a homegrown event.”

He said the marathon incurs a cost not only by paying the prize money, but also by paying for travel accommodations for the elite runners.

“Another problem is that Richmonders don’t know them, can’t pronounce their names and they’re hard to interview,” Mr. Suddeth said.

Say what?

The statement smacks of racism on its face.

And we told Mr. Suddeth that when he telephoned on Monday to try to explain “the context” of his remarks, as he put it.

However, as he tried to explain himself, he only dug himself into an even deeper racial abyss. He talked about how many of the African runners had difficulty talking with the media because they don’t speak English, how the Ethiopian runners were “just shy” and how any person or any color is allowed to come and run in the race.

And then he said: “I’m not a racist and what I said wasn’t racist. I showed it to one of my best friends, who is Black, and he said...”

“That’s classic,” we told him before hanging up.

Proximity to blackness, including having Black friends, co-workers or acquaintances, does not immunize white people from having attitudes that are rooted in racism or doing racist things, as John Eligon of The New York Times has so eloquently stated.

Black people are not props to be pulled out to buttress a white person’s tired and hollow excuse for a narrow mind and/or poor behavior regarding a Black person or someone of color.

In this case, Mr. Suddeth seemingly views the elite runners from Africa as a problem and may be happy if they don’t come to Richmond and suck up the travel money and prize money for what he sees as a local event.

He got his wish. This year, many of the African elite runners did not participate because the prize money wasn’t offered.

According to Sports Backers, which organizes the an- nual event, prize money for the entire event totals $25,000, with winners of the 26.2-mile headline race receiving only $2,500. The prize money was eliminated this year, organizers said, because Sports Backers took a “significant financial hit” in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. In order to put on the marathon, it had to reduce costs, and one such reduction was eliminating the prize money.

We get that. But for Mr. Suddeth to speak about the elite athletes as a problem because of language or cultural differences is beyond the pale.

Richmond touts itself as a cosmopolitan, international city, welcoming guests from all corners of the globe to enjoy a range of events — from the Richmond Marathon to grand film, music and food festivals and cycling competitions — either as participants or tourists.

We’d like to believe that Richmond has grown beyond a city of huckleberries with small-town views. Event organizers, such as Sports Backers and their cadre of staff and volunteers can’t afford to take the city a huge step backward in time and mindset to view these attractions as best only for local crowds and local participants.

If Mr. Suddeth, the lead coordinator for the elite athletes, sees language as a barrier to athletes’ engagement with the media and others, then we are certain volunteers who live within Metro Richmond would happily step forward to help translate.

Metro Richmond is the third most populous metro area in Virginia, with residents settling here from a host of nations. Our area public school districts have thousands of students for whom English is not their primary language. Assistance for COVID-19 vaccinations is available in more than 100 different languages. So help is available for Mr. Suddeth and Sport Backers to enhance the overall experience for elite athletes who are not fluent in English.

What Mr. Suddeth really pointed out in his statement is that he, and maybe others like him, have a problem — not the athletes.

Sports Backers also sought to distance itself from Mr. Suddeth and his narrow thinking.

Pete Woody, Sports Backers’ public relations and communications manager, sent the following unsolicited statement to the Free Press:

“Thom Suddeth was not involved in the process that led to this decision (to eliminate prize money). He is a volunteer and when he spoke to the Free Press, he was speaking on behalf of himself and not Sports Backers or the Richmond Marathon. His views do not reflect those of Sports Backers or the Richmond Marathon. In everything we do, from youth running programs to community fitness initiatives, to training teams and events like the Richmond Marathon, we aim to create an open and welcoming environment for participants of all abilities and backgrounds.”

We get it. But Mr. Suddeth and volunteers and staff like him are in positions of responsibility and bring their attitudes and beliefs with them when they interact with the public, the media and the special elite runners from other parts of the globe.

If Mr. Suddeth and others like him are the face of the marathon — and, by extension, the face of the city — then perhaps it’s time for a makeover.