Zero Sum Game?


I think that, fundamentally, the difference between those of us who find value in organized sports and those who consider organized sports at almost every level to be a colossal waste of time comes down to how we see competition. Is competition a positive sum game in which the aggregate happiness accruing to those who participate outweighs their aggregate disappointment? Or is competition, and especially elite competition, a negative sum game where almost everyone ends up losing, and only one or a few athletes among many get to enjoy the spoils of victory?

And speaking of spoils, do we believe that victories are mostly well-deserved, or is success often a matter of chance (or worse, the result of scheming for an edge outside the rules)? If those we feel are most worthy are not rewarded, then what? What are we left with when the race is run and the results recorded forever what we perceive to be an injustice?

I pondered these melancholy thoughts following the Women’s 800m finals on Day 4 of the Olympic Trials.

Everyone expected this to be one of the most exciting races of the meet, and in a way, it didn’t disappoint. The field of eight was perhaps the strongest all-American women’s 800 field ever assembled. Four had competed at the World Championships, three had been WC finalists, and one — Brenda Martinez — was the only American to win a WC medal. Two of the remaining entrants had been NCAA champions. All of the eight women had PRs under 2:00, and five had PRs under 1:59. The runner with the SLOWEST PR going into the race was Chrishuna Williams (1:59.89), followed in reverse order by Raevyn Rogers (1:59.71), and Kate Grace (1:59.47).

Over the first 600m, first Rogers, then Alysia Montano, then Ajee Wilson took turns in the lead. Oddly, Montano ran most of the race on the outside of Lane 1, even when she had a clear lead, surely losing tenths of a second in the process. Perhaps that contributed to the events to follow, although I can’t prove it.

With 150m to go, six women — Wilson, Martinez, Rogers, Montano, Molly Ludlow, and Kate Grace were tightly bunched. Williams trailed by a few meters, and Phoebe Wright trailed Williams by a few meters more. Wilson looked good, but Martinez on her shoulder looked better, and Ludlow on the outside and Grace on the inside in sixth and still biding her time also looked very strong. Rogers and Montano looked to be tying up a bit. Moments later, everything had changed.

There is a huge debate about what precisely led to the ensuing collision, but it involved Martinez losing her balance and momentum, Montano getting caught up in Martinez’ back kick, tripping hard, and tumbling to the track, and Rogers and Ludlow doing their best to avoid the crash. In an instant, every runner but Wilson had been thrown into a different position. Grace found a lane on the inside and charged to the lead. Williams, who had been in 7th, was suddenly very much in it in 5th and closing fast. Martinez, who had been pushed out to Lane 3, was completely out of it. Rogers and Ludlow tried to recover their full momentum and their line to the finish, but had been slowed. Montano was on the ground, being passed by Wright.

At the line, it was Grace, Wilson, and Williams, with Ludlow 0.04 out of third, and Rogers just behind her. Wright would finish sixth, with Martinez in seventh, and — a minute later — Montano.

It was a hard race to watch and a hard result to accept. The collision ruined the hopes of two of the strongest runners in the field (Martinez and Montano) and perhaps cost a third (Ludlow) a spot on the team. But that was all hypothetical. On message boards, reactions to what had happened ranged from demands that the race be rerun to cruel attempts to assign blame and mock Montano, who forced herself to finish the race through he sobs. But there would be no re-run, and race officials ruled the contact incidental.

Unfortunate” seems like too weak a word. LetsRun called it “absolute madness.” One writer described the race as “tragic.”

Surely, that last is an overreaction and perversion of the word tragedy. The world is too full of real tragedies to waste that label on a race with an accidental fall. Nevertheless, I would guess that everyone who watched the race experienced a depressing sensation that the proper order of the universe had been disrupted. Why was it so hard to accept?

I think the reason is that as sports fans, we hold fast to the belief that in the end, among all the winners and losers, there is more joy than sorrow. Although we might lose, someone else will win, and the joy brought into the world will make up for the disappointment. Our team will one day win a championship, and all those years of disappointment will have been worth it. In the end, we believe, the competition and caring so deeply will lift us all. That’s the promise and the justification of sporting competition.

But boy, it was hard to feel uplifted after that 800. I was happy for Kate Grace and Chrishuna Williams, of course, and could only imagine how they must feel making the team. (Grace poignantly said it was the first time she had ever made the podium at any kind of national championship through high school, college, and the pros, and Williams still seemed not quite to have realized what had happened). Wilson expressed relief, but little joy. And as for the rest of the field, it was a lot rougher. Montano displayed her devastation in full public view. Martinez handled it with class, and tried to move past her disappointment to focus on the 1500 later in the meet. I felt the worst for Ludlow, who finished 4th for the second Trials in a row.

I’d like to think — and so I will probably convince myself — that catastrophes like the women’s 800 are a sad but inevitable part of racing, and that they don’t take away from the overall good that the sport brings to our lives. I’ll soothe my nerves and quiet my darker thoughts by re-watching the 2012 Olympic Men’s 800 final, where EVERYONE ran great, and (I like to think) EVERYONE was ennobled by being part of the fastest 800 in history. I suppose, you can’t have one without the other. For there to be perfect races, there have to be imperfect ones, and for their to be startling upsets, there probably need to be races where the favorites fall.

That’s probably the truth, but it’s not an easy truth.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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2 Responses to Zero Sum Game?

  1. Terry says:

    Jon, excellent breakdown of a the drama in a chaotic race with 4 years of training riding on a top 3 finish! It looked to me like Montano couldn’t get her pacing straight, boxed in off the first turn, then off the front on the outside of lane 1, then boxed in again with 200m to go. It seems like her last desperate move at 150m to go put her dangerously close to Martinez and her loping back kick, and no one else was giving up an inch of track space. The best replay I’ve found is here (, once you get past the finishing drama to the actual race finish.

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    Thanks, Terry!
    I purposefully tried to avoid assigning blame to one runner, because I think there are so many seemingly minor developments that contribute to the final disaster. Sometimes, as a spectator, you can see that something isn’t right even before a crash. I know I’ve had that feeling watching some races, only to see my worst fears realized. I think your analysis is right — Montano’s pace and position was a little erratic. Typically, she’d want to be leading at that point in the race, but instead she was in the middle of a very bunched pack at the most intensely fraught meters of the race. But maybe Martinez was leaning in to the curve and Wilson’s shoulder a little too much. It almost seems inevitable that legs would get tangled.

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