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February 14, 2010

Swifter, Higher, Stronger ... Prettier?

You never know when something you write will come back to haunt you - and sometimes, the lines that you regret the most are seemingly incidental when you first put them on paper. Such was the case with the Monterey Herald column I submitted last week, on the eve of the Winter Olympics.

It has been a running (so to speak) joke among my training group whenever the Olympics roll around about how poorly we identify with sports that are determined to any extent by presentation and style points rather than defeating an opponent face to face in competition. The Winter Games are chock full of such events, and we decided to have some fun with applying the style point philosophy to the world of road racing.

The last paragraph was intended to be a bit of comic relief, suggesting some absurd ways that events could be tinkered with to make them more to our liking. One event we mentioned was the luge – and then tragically, less than 24 hours later, a young Olympian was killed on the Vancouver luge run on the day of the Opening Ceremonies.

It was a horrible coincidence, and it obviously reinforces how inherently dangerous many of these winter sports are, and how seriously every Olympic event should be respected. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have made the same comments at the end of this one - but honestly, I don’t think there's any way something like this could have ever been anticipated ... so I’m letting the article stand here as originally written.


Running Life 2/11/10 “Swifter, Higher, Stronger … Prettier?”

Just for kicks, imagine the following: you’re charging through the final mile of a 10K, on pace to set a personal record or win an age group award, and giving it every ounce of effort you have.

The situation grows more difficult with every step - legs screaming, lungs burning, heart pounding like a jackhammer – but you somehow muster the courage and determination to stay on pace all the way to the finish. Finally you cross the line and almost keel over from sheer exhaustion, filled with satisfaction and pride from a maximal effort and a long-awaited goal.

Shortly thereafter, you’re approached by a race official, where the following exchange begins …

Official: Nice job – it looks like you might win an age group award. Of course, your official result is pending final review.

You: Review? What kind of review?

Official: By the judges, obviously. They deduct or add seconds to your time based on style. Like the way you were really grunting during that last mile – that might cost you about 15 seconds.

You: Seriously?

Official: Uh-huh. Also, your arm swing looked kind of funny throughout the race – that’s probably another 10-second penalty. And you had this strange grimace on your face towards the end – maybe another 5 or 10 seconds for that. Honestly, you weren’t as graceful as the other runners, and some of them really impressed the judges out there.

You: But this was my fastest time ever - I set a PR!

Official: Yeah … about that. By my calculations, your clock time was 39:35, and factoring in style points, your official time will probably be about 40:10 or so. Congrats on almost breaking 40 minutes! Unfortunately, two guys behind you earned time deductions, so they passed you in the age group standings. Something to work on for next time, maybe.

You: This is insane.

And you’d be justified in thinking so. Nevertheless, every four years we embrace and celebrate a whole collection of sports that rely on just such a premise to separate winners from losers. Tomorrow evening, the craziness begins all over again; that’s right … we’re talking about the Olympics.

Before you get the wrong idea, we’ll say very clearly that we absolutely LOVE watching the Olympics. We love the ideals they embody: pursuit of the highest levels of human performance, uniting people from all corners of the globe, who set political and religious and cultural differences aside in the name of brotherhood through competition.

It’s just that last part – the “competition” thing – that rubs us the wrong way sometimes. In our book, sporting competition consists of either 1) defeating someone face to face, or 2) outperforming everybody on the same field at the same time. It doesn’t include who looks the prettiest, who puts the most flair into their routine, or who benefitted from better course conditions earlier in the day.

The Summer Olympics, particularly gymnastics, feature an element of this capriciousness, but the Winter Games are the stage when such absurdity truly shines. However, we realize that most of the events don’t lend themselves to side-by-side competition, and that won’t stop us from watching and appreciating the grand spectacle that every Olympiad offers.

But deep inside, part of us will be wishing for an eight-lane luge track, full-contact figure skating (have them all do their routines at the same time; last one standing wins), or a simultaneous downhill ski event - anything where we don’t need judges to tell us who the winners are.


Dave 2/15/10, 5:29 AM  

And that is why speed skating short track is my favorite...very favorite.

Michael 2/15/10, 5:36 AM  

Love this...laughed out loud the whole time. We actually have a longtime family joke about "style points." Finally, I couldn't agree more with Dave!

Ro Hunter 2/15/10, 6:01 AM  

I was getting your point until the last paragraph when you mentioned luge (still rather a sensitive sporting reference which could - and should - have been changed, IMHO) and downhill ski racing, neither of which carry the style points of which you seem to dislike.

Both downhill ski racing and luge are fitness/skills based, against the clock races where the fittest/most skilled and fastest wins. Just like running.

Neither downhill racing and luge are subject to judging, except in the broadest sense in that you must remain on the course. Just like running.

So what was your point exactly?

Donald 2/15/10, 6:31 AM  

Ro - nearly all of the skiing and events, and to a lesser extent the sliding events are greatly influenced by course conditions at any given time. Earlier racers can have a huge advantage over the rest of the field if a storm rolls in later (witness yesterday's biathlon), or a disadvantage if the course gets packed down later in the competition.

Thanks for your input on the luger, and thanks for reading.

Rick Gaston 2/15/10, 2:46 PM  

Yeah Dave likes it when people are careening all over the place. You know if they allowed style points I'd comb my hair and suck in my gut before coming into the finish. Anything I can do to record a faster time. Nothing I can do about the GU stains or energy drink spillage on the shirt, that's a Rick Gaston trademark move.

Gretchen 2/15/10, 3:20 PM  

Geez, distance runners are the same everywhere. (Which is kind of comforting, really.) The men on my college track team used to have this same discussion. They were vehemently against any sport that required judging being allowed in the olympics. I can't say I disagree, I just didn't feel as passionate about the argument as they did. (Still do, I imagine.)

Also, I know I'm being a total snot here (go figure...) but aren't "swifter" and "faster" the same thing? Isn't one of those supposed to be "stronger"? Just trying to keep ya honest... ;)

Donald 2/15/10, 5:36 PM  

Gretchen - thanks for catching that. I had it right in the article, but screwed up the post title.

Also, it's worth mentioning again that I still love watching nearly all the Olympic sports, even the judging ones like figure skating and half pipe. It's just a different feeling to them, is all.

21stCenturyMom 2/17/10, 7:45 PM  

The one that kills me is the downhill mogul skiing. That's some very difficult skiing and time should be all that matters but they have style points. So absurd.

Great article.

Rainmaker 2/22/10, 8:57 PM  

Agree on all your points.

As for a massive downhill event, they actually have something exactly like it. It's called a Chineese Downhill (seriously), and it's a top of the mountain to bottom of the mountan event where the first one to the bottom wins. Pushing, etc are fully allowed. There's a few videos out there of some...

The modern day Olympic version is a bit more 'refined', and called Ski Cross. ;)

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