Who has the record for the fastest time at the Kentucky Derby?
How about the record at the Daytona 500?
What’s the average speed record for the Tour de France?
If you know these facts, you’re a more avid fan of sports than I.
Records are important in track and field. They allow us to connect to history, comparing how fast Nick Willis and Roger Bannister covered the same 4 laps around a track. No one doubts the importance of records, but what I want to suggest, unlike the aforementioned sports, is that we’ve sold out. Track has become so time and record obsessed that we’ve forgotten what makes sport great.
This never-ending search for faster times creates a system where athletes fail more often than they succeed. A system that is reliant on breaking records or exceedingly fast times to get that hit of excitement from the fan and grab the newspaper headline the next day.
Turn the TV to any diamond league meet and the outcomes are the same. London, Monaco, Eugene- same races, different cities. A string of athletes sit behind a pace setter for 2/3rds of the race in hopes of an exceedingly fast time to demonstrate the limits of human performance. As a sport, we’ve succumbed to becoming a Guinness World Record-esque sideshow, where all that matters is accomplishing something new.
Racing is predictable, and is reduced to ‘how fast will the athletes run and will they get a record/personal best?’
The focus on times has created a system that is broken. This overreliance has forced us down an unsustainable path that has far reaching consequences.
We’ve forgotten what matters the most in sport: competition.
The Elimination of Competition:
The single file line of runners circling the track at your run-of-the-mill pro race is a familiar one. Be it on the track or at the latest flat and fast marathon. Athletes sit behind pace makers, waiting, patiently until the real racing starts. There are no lead changes until the rabbit steps off the track or road. There are no moves being made. The athletes simply run fast, holding on for as long as possible. As a fan, all we have is waiting.
If the athletes manage to hold on, then there’s a race to the finish, with the focus being on do they break a record, run a fast time, or set a personal best. If we’re lucky, we get a race where 2-3 athletes battle it out for this fast time. But by then it’s too late.
We’ve eliminated the intrigue of 60% of the race. We’ve artificially constrained the drama to only come at the end. We’ve set the contest up so that our viewer’s excitement has to come in the final meters or miles of the race and depend almost entirely on the feedback that the clock provides.
Never mind, that at the speeds they are running and with the grace of their movement, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between an elite runner gliding along at 4:40 pace or at 5:00 pace for the marathon. The clock lets us know whether we should be booing or growing in excitement.
The results of this artificial constraint are a predictable one:
First, we have set ourselves up for disappointment. Records- be they World or personal- are rare by definition. If this measure is the judgment of success, we will walk away being disappointed more often than content. From a spectator standpoint it creates a strange situation where an athlete wins a race, but for whatever reason, only runs 3:32 for 1,500m instead of 3:28, and is left with a feeling of being let down. The athlete did not live up to the pre-race hype of running fast, so the race must be a disappointment. On the other end, during a quick race, we are left with athletes celebrating in 12th place, who were barely on the TV screen, because they nabbed an elusive personal best. In the NBA, no one walks away from a blowout loss telling the local news reporter “I scored 30 points when I only average 10” so I am thrilled.
By focusing on times, we’ve set ourselves up for failure and disappointment more often than success.
Second, the artificial stability of having rabbits in the name of clinching fast times sends the message that the first 60% of the race has very little consequence. You can zone out and forget about paying attention because we will arrive at almost ¾ of the race in the same spot that we were just 200 meters into it. This is akin to watching an NFL game knowing that when we reach the final quarter, the score will almost always reflect the Las Vegas odds. Only in the final quarter will some sort of shift be allowed to occur.
We’ve made the unpredictable, predictable. We’ve made sure that every competition resembles the last with the only change occurring in the final lap of the race.
But if we eliminate times, then will we only see tactical races, which are considered boring according to die-hard track fans?
The illusion of the boring tacticl race:
Imagine if in the NBA players were only allowed to take 3-point shots, for the sole reason that 3 pointers are nobler than standing under the basket and dunking? We’d call the Shaquille O’Neils of the words cowards for standing around, using their god given height and size to grab the rebound and score at will. Forget that Shaq’s skill repertoire lends itself to this type of game; he is ‘gutless’ for playing such a shallow game.
Basketball would be boring if we limited the skills of the athletes who played it, nullifying the strengths of our big men by requiring the exclusive use of the 3 point shot. Yet, in athletics, by creating semi-scripted races, that’s essentially what we do.
Track fans despise tactical affairs. Whenever athletes jog around in non-rabbited races fans and athletes alike will throw up the cliché Steve Prefontaine quote about racing hard from the front taking guts and anything else being “chicken shit”. While the sentiment is honorable, Pre likely felt this way for selfish reasons. His abilities lent themselves to fast races from the gun. If Pre was born with a Jim Ryun-esque kick, his attitude would likely be different.
What Pre didn’t realize is that tactics build drama, create uncertainty, and force athletes to utilize the different tools in their arsenal.
Look no further than the Tour de France or the Olympic road cycling contests to see what we are missing out on.
Many casual fans are astonished to realize that for a large portion of many stages of Le Tour, the cyclist’s heart rates may be as low as 120-130 beats per minute as the peloton cruises along. This is the equivalent to watching an elite male marathoner cruise along at 5:30-6:00-mile pace for the first 10 miles of the race. That’s pretty slow.
In running, we will boo and jeer athletes for such behavior, with the Prefontaine mystique fresh in our minds. In cycling, it’s the opposite. The story is allowed to unfold naturally. The sluggish pace of the peloton allows for tension to grow, as we speculate on when an antsy cyclists or team will surge and make their bid. We hear the announcers discussing the sprinters who this slow pace will benefit or the climbers who need to make a move up the next hill or the experts at descents who need to desperately hang close until they crest the mountain so that they can unleash their power. Tactics create a game of chess.
This was readily apparent to anyone who watched the women’s Olympic road cycling. You had countries and individuals making breaks, trying to get away, only to be reeled back in. You had the drama of the US team forcing the peloton to speed up as they realize that dangerous cyclists had an advantage going into the last climb; the climbers who pressed the lead to try and create space on the mountain. It all led to an enthralling last 20km as the feisty American who created a gap on the climb, tried to hold off the hard-charging time trial experts over the last few kilometers.
The drama built toward the finish. The tactics add a layer of intrigue, just like an NFL coach opting to play a conservative ground game versus initializing guns blazing all out passing attack. We need an escalating drama, building in intrigue and uncertainty as we reach a crescendo in the final kilometers of the race.
When winning is all that matters, athletes take chances, knowing their strengths and weaknesses. We have those making early bids, those biding their time, the pretenders who surge up front while the pack lets them go.
When the race is scripted, as when we have rabbits focused on time, the number of potential outcomes is greatly reduced. There are no Meb’s left when the pace requires 2:05 fitness. There are no celebrations of Bernard Lagat winning the Olympic Trials 5k in a pedestrian 13:4x time if the race is a 13-minute affair with everyone waiting until the rabbit drops out to initiate a move.
We aren’t running a 5k with a rabbit eliminating any drama for 2/3 of the race, besides the knowledge that they are running fast. We are giving the fan permission to fast forward through 60% of the race because no moves will be made, there will be no changes of pace, nothing will occur until this rabbit steps off.
Tactical races are not boring. We think they are because we’ve had a mindset implanted in us that times and records represent success. What we miss is that competition is what matters. Competition creates drama. Not times.
We need to get back to the idea that a slow affair does not represent a fault, but it is a building of tension until an antsy runner lays down his cards for the rest of the competitors to see.
We need a shift in mindsets from our runners, our fans, and our announcers, explaining the intrigue that tactical affairs create. Breaking down who this benefits, who needs to make a move, and who might be undone either way.
When we eliminate the chase for records and add more races that are pure competition, athletes will also regain their confidence to take risks.
The final way forward: Drugs
In a brilliant piece on weight lifting, Jere Longman discusses how drugs have created a point of no return for the sport of lifting. The sport is so heavily dependent on records and lifting ever heavier weights that there is no going back. Doping has created an artificial reality that clean athletes simply can’t match. If we were to go back to clean lifting, the weights would pale in comparison to what was once lifted, and interest would predictably decline. The author discusses how consistent lifting of weights 10% lighter than what drug infused athletes have lifted would create disappointment. Weight lifting is stuck. Fans want big weights, and the only way to get them now are drugs.
This is what happens when sports become ever reliant on bigger, faster, and stronger. We have to show progress to keep interest, and when progress naturally declines (like in horse racing), the only way to sustain progress is drugs.
In order to escape this fate, we need a shifting of perspective. The way forward isn’t to say, forget it, let them all use so we can see spectacular races. The reality, as mentioned previously, the difference between Usain Bolt running 9.9 to 9.7 to the naked eye is impercetable. The elite coach may see it, but to the general fan, freakishly fast (which 9.90 is) is freakishly fast. In fact, when the top runners are on their game and run faster, it looks easier, appearing almost as if they are going slower.
By eliminating the chase for times and records, we minimize the quest for ever-harder to reach records, that might require drugs.
Am I saying that the elimination of records will eliminate drugs? Absolutely not. But what I am suggesting is that if competition is what matters, perhaps the sponsors and governing bodies will stop turning a blind eye to doping of their top sportsmen. Right now, as long as someone is producing phenomenal times and records, they are seen as absolutely necessary, almost protected, athletes. It creates a dependence on athletes running ever faster, and frankly, the powers that be don’t care how they got to that record-breaking speed, they just care that it creates publicity.
If the attitude shifts towards competition, then chasing ever-elusive marks decreases. Drugs, to sustain the inching forward of progress, aren’t a requirement. There are other ways forward.
Where to go?
Fans aren’t disappointed in a 10-7 NFL game if the game was fiercely fought and comes down to the wire. Fans are more enthralled by this low scoring match then if one team sets a scoring record while winning by 28 points.
Fans of the Tour de France aren’t drawn in by some individual winning by 15 minutes and setting course record after record; they are drawn in by the drama of the race.
In track, we’ve intentionally eliminated that drama. We’ve made racing predictable, certain, and uninteresting. We’ve forgotten that what makes most Olympic races exciting is not an Olympic record (quick: who holds the 1500m Olympic record?), but the battles itself. It’s Kip Keino trying to take the kick out of Jim Ryun, or Meb Keflezhagi betting on too strong of a move and trying to chase down Vanderlei de Lima in the Athens marathon. It’s the Alan Webb 12.5 second 100m thrown into the middle of the 1500m world championship wondering if he’s gone nuts or if he can hang on. We need to eliminate the certainty, get away from the predictable scripted narrative. Create battles, not time-trials.
While Bannisters sub-4 mile, supported by rabbits, was a special moment sealed in our minds, Landy’s world record which shattered Bannister’s mark a month or so later is rarely discussed. 4 minutes was a mythical once in a lifetime barrier that should have been chased. What was more interesting though is when Bannister and Landy met in the great duel in
Yes, the times were fast, but that’s not what mattered. It was Landy pressing hard from 800m out trying to get rid of the fast closing Bannister and then the final 100m where Landy looked over his inside shoulder as Bannister passed on his outside. The race can still be watched and was referred to as the race of the century, not because of its fast time (as both runners fell short of the world record) but because of the drama created between Landy and Bannister. Two fast men, who had different strengths, pitted against one another, competing.
It’s time to forget the clock and get back to what makes racing interesting: competition.
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