Image credit: Runners World
“That’s strange,” I thought to myself while browsing the IAAF web site late Thursday morning to catch up on the most recent Olympic Track and Field results, “where is the United States?” I checked to make sure that I had clicked the correct link, and was indeed looking at the results from the heats of the women’s 4 x 100 relay. I looked more carefully, to make sure I hadn’t missed some mention of the U.S. — a DNS or DNF or DQ or something — but the more I looked, the more they weren’t there. Had the U.S., which had been greedily gobbling up medals all week, chosen not to compete in one of its signature events?
It took me a while to find the explanation, that the United States had protested the results of their heat, in which Brazil’s third runner had inadvertently but quite consequentially swung her arm into Lane 2 contacting The U.S.’s Allyson Felix, who broke stride and, instantly realizing that her momentum had been slowed and she would NOT be able to reach English Gardner in time, pitched the baton forward. Alas, the baton fell to the track. Felix would eventually retrieve it, hand it off properly, and the U.S. would finish far behind the other teams.
The U.S. immediately protested the result, and it was decided that the Americans would be given a chance to re-run the race — alone — late that afternoon. They would need to run better than the Chinese, who had finished with the eighth-fastest time in the heats, to earn a place in the final.
I suspect that I was in the minority in thinking this was really cool. I think it was Ato Bolden who said, on NBC’s evening telecast, that he had never in all his years of watching track and field, seen anything like it. Well maybe at the Pro level, but I think if he’d been watching High School track and field meets, he would have seen much weirder things, including re-runs, do-overs, mid-race event cancellations (seriously — a two-mile halted after the sixth lap because of the threat of lightning), and other bizarre happenings. Having the U.S. quartet show up in the early evening to run a time trial with all the other lanes empty really brought out the track geek in me.
But NBC didn’t quite know how to spin the story. They could have started their evening telecast with the results of that re-run, but instead chose to show a replay only AFTER Usain Bolt’s triumphant victory in the 200m, which brought the evening program to a close. And then, all the commentary focused on how difficult it would be for the Americans to run properly, how they ought to “play it safe,” that is, run more slowly to make the hand-offs easier, and how embarrassing it would be for them to mess up when they were the only team on the track.
I saw it very differently. I thought it wouldn’t be any more difficult to complete the passes, but only if they pretty much ran at full-speed, which — presumably — would be the most familiar rhythm. Maybe there would be a subtle change to outgoing runners’ acceleration pattern, but idea that they’d make any major adjustments seemed more risk than running the race normally.
Afterwards, when the United States had done its job and recorded a time faster than every other qualifier, English Gardner dismissed the idea that it had been especially difficult to run solo, commenting that it had been “just like practice.” To me, this explained the disconnect I had been feeling between my take on the whole odd situation, and that of the networks.
TV coverage systematically (and understandably) focuses on the competition, not on practice. As a result, everything that happens when athletes step on the track is interpreted based on the competitive environment — the pressure, the personal battles, the heightened stakes. Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with this perspective, only noting that the real life of a professional track and field athlete is > 95% tedious practice, and < 5% opportunities to demonstrate the resulting competence in front of millions of viewers. Watching the decathlon, you get the impression that Ashton Eaton was born doing almost every event in track and field well, but of course the reality of his life is hours and hours of practice every week to address the flaws in his discus throw, the finer points of his pole vault plant, and countless other issues of technique in the other events. It takes tremendous mental fortitude to maintain focus through two days of competition, but the groundwork is there because of years of repetition.
So the four women of the American 4 x 100 squad were required to run one more time trial. To the TV-viewing audience, it looked incredibly stressful. But the women themselves seemed to handle it as just another run, just another rep. I would go further to say that any runner who needs an Olympic crowd and seven other teams in order to run competently, is probably not Olympic caliber. Think about it: a 100-meter hurdler who has to think to herself “This is the Olympic final, so this time I’d better not trip over a hurdle,” is unlikely to ever make it to the Olympic final.
Yes, the adrenaline of the moment is a wonderful thing, and sometimes it produces Beamonesque performances, but adrenaline without years of practice and repetition wouldn’t take you very far. Personally, I thought the re-run was a fascinating diversion in another great day of track and field, and I watched the Americans execute their solo race against the clock with interest and pleasure, even as everyone else turned off the TV, or changed the channel to team handball.