What is the point of racing?

In this space, I probably mention Bill Simmons more often than any other mainstream sportswriter. You might know him as ESPN’s “Sports Guy” or as the creator of Grantland.com.

He’s the only guy I know of who has written about the annual tradition of watching the Boston Marathon from a local fan’s perspective (and likely the only one to write about it from any perspective, period). He has coined phrases like “sports hate” and “the Tyson zone” that are so universal in application to sports fandom that they’ve made their way into various pieces I’ve written.

On Friday he wrote something that struck a resonating chord with me as a blogger.

I made a deal with myself a long time ago: My column needed to capture the things I discuss with my friends. Last week, I realized that wasn’t totally happening anymore. Something of a disconnect had emerged between my private conversations and the things I wrote for Grantland/ESPN. In essence, I had turned into two people. There’s Sports Fan Me, and there’s ESPN Me.

Most of the column is a screed against sports reporters who willfully ignore all the obvious signs of massive performance-enhancing drug use, and Simmons castigates his “ESPN Me” for going along with it. We as track fans know more than our share of this, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. It’s that I have also gotten away from my real motivation for writing.

I began this blog in the summer of 2006 for two reasons. One was to get down various thoughts that kept rattling around in my head while on long runs or drives. The other was because my wife was getting all kinds of free swag out of her blog and I wanted to cash in too (disclosing my six-and-a-half-year total haul: a couple of books for review and a one-year free pass to WCSN in 2007).

But the basics are this: I’m a track fan. I like watching meets and races and competitions. I like debating about them, anticipating them, dissecting them. I like to play with numbers and rankings and other kinds of things, and I feel like I may have gotten away from them by trying to play “journalist”, something I most definitely am not nor wish to be.

I’m trying to get back to being a track fan and using that for the basis of my writing. For several days I’ve been thinking about something that happened this weekend and how it encapsulates the problems inherent in track and field.

What is the point of racing?

First, some backstory.

Back in 1992 the Ohio Statistical Conference was held at Bowling Green State University, where I was a student studying math education. I went to a couple of sessions purely out of curiosity as a nerdy sports fan. One was a talk given by Bill James, which predictably drew a lot more sports fans than statisticians. The other was a presentation on how college football computer rankings worked.

The nuts and bolts of those rankings are about margins of victory. You can tinker with lots of other things: home advantage, diminishing returns for bigger margins of victory, a bonus for winning (i.e., making the difference between winning by one point and losing by one point much larger than the difference between winning by five points and winning by seven points), and so on. But because there are so many teams and so few games, it is essential that when Team A beats Team B, we judge not only that Team A is better than Team B but we judge how much better they are.

A foreign student quietly watched the goings on, and eventually piped up with his outsider’s view. This is what he said, and I will never forget this:

Isn’t the point of the game to win? Why do we care so much about the score?

Everyone first looked at him as if he had six heads, but it only took a moment for many of us to say “you know, he’s right”.

This is the basic problem we have in track and field, especially college track. Marks and times and heights and distances have become more important than actually winning. And that’s very bad if we want to take ourselves seriously as a spectator sport.

There were a lot of great collegiate competitions this weekend: the Armory Collegiate Invitational, the Meyo Invitational, the Sykes & Sabock Cup, and more. But few produced really great marks. Which is more important?

Let’s look at the Meyo Miles at Notre Dame on Saturday. Fighting Irish head coach Joe Piane has managed to make this into a real live spectator event. Every year by the mile’s 3:00pm start time, the Loftus Sports Center is packed. Students are out on the track with thundersticks and making a helluva racket.

Writing for the UNDerground blog, student Eric Woitchek had the following to say about the meet:

Collegiate track fans seem few and far between. If someone who claimed they were not a track fan showed up to the hair-raising atmosphere provided by the men’s and women’s Meyo Mile, they would be likely to experience a change of heart.

For roughly four minutes, Loftus was an equal to Notre Dame Stadium on a fall Sunday. Courtesy of the Leprechaun Legion, boom stick collisions reverberated off of the field house’s walls. Shouts of approval or agony blared from the mouths of loyal fans. Every one in the arena shuffled to get a better look at the finish line. There is only one word that can adequately describe the experience of watching a collegiate mile race: electric.

You want to see the excitement? Watch here.

Watch more video of 2013 Notre Dame Meyo Invitational on flotrack.org

In terms of what college track so desperately needs, Saturday’s Meyo Miles were tremendous successes. We would be lucky to have more like this.

From a NCAA Championships qualifying perspective, though, they were failures. Only one sub-4:00 time came out of the men’s race, and that one is not likely to be fast enough to get the winner (Wisconsin’s Austin Mudd) to the national meet. The women’s race may have been fast enough, but if so it’s probably only for the winner.

This is college track’s problem. From a standpoint of what’s needed for qualifying to nationals (and other meets, such as conference championships), it’s better to run fast and be fourth or fifth than to run slower and win.

This is fundamentally at odds with what sports is about, winning and losing. We make winning and losing a secondary thing, or (even worse) completely unimportant at all.

How do we fix that? I have no ideas. To paraphrase Elim Garak, what do I know? I’m only a self-appointed loudmouth with a blog. But I do know that the Meyo Miles absolutely rocked and we need more things like it.

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2 Responses to What is the point of racing?

  1. pjm says:

    You sure you don’t want my job?

  2. antman says:

    Part of the reason we look at things besides winning/losing in track is that there are vastly more “losers” than winners. In a single game of a team sport, 50% of the participants won, 50% lost. In a mile field of 12 runners, 1/12th were winners, 11/12th were “losers”. If winning is all we cared about, the interest level would be even less than it is now.