So when I came home carrying bottles with ratings of 87 and 88 – or even worse, unrated – I had some explaining to do.
It wasn’t that I completely dismissed her instructions; rather, I felt like I had equally compelling criteria for choosing a wine - namely, I thought it was important to pick some winners. Ultimately, in the spirit of diplomacy, I picked three bottles that met her standards, and three that met mine.
Predictably, my diplomacy wasn’t enough to avoid triggering an exchange between my curious wife and me, which went something like this:
Her: They’re not all rated 90?
Me: No, but the ones that are lower should be good. They’ve won gold medals at different wine shows.
Her: So what? There are thousands of those little wine competitions. The ratings are more objective.
Me: Sure, but what does a number tell you? I’ve never even heard of the guy who rates them.
Her: It means they’re good!
Me: Yeah … but it’s a different kind of good. I’m more impressed by the competition.
It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized why I was so inherently biased towards contest winners as opposed to high scoring wines. And contrary to what you’re probably thinking, it’s not simply because I’m a runner – more specifically, it’s because I’m a student of the sport of distance running.
Among people who care about such things, one of the most frequent arguments concerning the relative greatness of distance runners is the importance of world records in comparison to gold medals. In other words – is it a greater accomplishment to do something better than anyone in history, or to defeat all of your peers while competing for the most prestigious championships?
If you’re like most people, your first instinct is to think a world record is the more admirable feat – but think of it this way: many world record efforts are nothing more than time trials set under the most ideal conditions imaginable. For every distance above 800 meters, record attempts are typically targeted weeks in advance, with pacers recruited to pull the runner through the first stages of the race before dropping out later on. Even then, attempts are abandoned if weather conditions are not ideal or if the athlete isn’t 100% healthy - it’s basically a speed laboratory where all variables are carefully controlled before the experiment ever begins.
Now compare those conditions to a race like the Olympic 5K. The event is held rain or shine (usually in hot or humid or – in the most recent Olympiad - smoggy extremes) whether the athletes are healthy or not. All of the best runners in the world are there, each one trying to influence the race in his preferred fashion (tactical pacing, surging at particular times, jostling within a large pack, deciding whether to draft or run clear of the fray) in order to win the most prestigious title of their lives. There is a preliminary heat before the finals, making stamina a requirement in addition to speed. The race is a battle; the champion is the one who takes everyone’s greatest effort and proves himself better than all of them.
The most classic example of the record-versus-race debate goes back more than 50 years, to the time of the 4-minute mile barrier. Roger Bannister broke the mark first – with three pacers to help him – in May of 1954, only to have his world record shattered in similar fashion by John Landy just 46 days later. They didn’t race head to head until August of that year, when Bannister outkicked Landy in what is still referred to as the “Mile of the Century”. Bannister’s winning time in the race was significantly slower than Landy’s still-standing world record – but if you asked 100 people in 1954 who the world’s best miler was, 99 of them would have said Bannister. It was hardly even a question.
So … which accomplishment is more impressive? Which one best reflects the spirit of the sport? These are questions that can be bounced back and forth all day; they also bring us back to the aforementioned bottles of wine.
Think of the bottles with 90+ ratings as world record holders: they’ve scored higher than all other competitors in their class. The gold medal winners are the, er, … gold medal winners. They’ve challenged their competitors face to face under uniform circumstances and emerged victorious.
Speaking of face to face showdowns … when it comes to differences of opinion with my wife, I’m about as successful as Charlie Brown trying to kick the football from Lucy’s tee. I’ve mentioned before that my wife is wicked smart – and if you’ve read this blog for more than a week, you already know the word I use most frequently to describe myself (hint: it rhymes with schmidiot). But for the purpose of friendly competition, I’ll go ahead and ask: which bottle of wine would you reach for first? A world record holder or a gold medalist? Or perhaps just the one with the prettiest label?
I suspect I know how this one’s going to play out, but feel free to and weigh in below and confirm it.