Fast Section of Men’s 1500m – Stanford Invitational, April 1, 2017
Last Saturday night when I should have been getting to bed early to rest up for Sunday’s long run, I was instead glued to my laptop screen watching the distance races being streamed live from the Stanford Invitational. As it happened, I was paying rapt attention as the fast section of the men’s 1500m got underway. The first two laps went by without incident, and then as the the entire field charged down the back straight, calamity struck.
I expect you’ve seen the video clips. As the pack of runners comes out of the first turn, an official in a white hat and red blazer appears in the left foreground of the frame, walking at an angle across the track, from the outside lanes toward the inside lanes, with his back to the runners. The race clock reads 2:02.1.
I remember that from the instant I saw the official, I realized he was on course to interfere with the race. But surely, I thought, at any moment he would become aware of the runners bearing down on him and take himself out of of harm’s way.
I was wrong.
Over the next 3-4 seconds, my irritation turned increasingly to apprehension as the official continued his steady progress into exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. At some point, the unnamed official either heard the repeated yells of “Track!” from pacer Pat McGregor, or responded to some other warning signal from the crowd. At that point, with the clock reading 2:06.1, he finally reacted.
Unfortunately, without knowing how close the runners were (he never looked back), he made what turns out to be the worst possible choice. Instead of moving to the outside, or even standing still to let the runners flow around him, he slid to the inside in a futile attempt to reach the infield in time to avoid a collision.
McGregor plows into him, and absorbs his sideways momentum. Three-time Olympian Michael Rimmer slams him from behind. Both McGregor and Rimmer have their hands on him and, whether it is to steady themselves or try to get the official off the track, end up twisting and pulling him back into the infield.
With no way to stay upright, the official slams into the track. It is a sickening moment, and the official is later carried off on a stretcher and taken to a hospital.
Readers, that could have been me.
As a competitor and a coach, I can tell you that no matter how much experience you have around tracks, and no matter how careful you try to be, you will have moments where you forget all of the dangers that surround you at an average track meet. Maybe in your haste to go over to congratulate an athlete who has just finished a race, you cross a jump runway. Or maybe some distraction on the track diverts your attention from the throwers warming up for the javelin. These lapses happen, and thankfully, most of the time have no dire consequence.
As I read message board posts, and then articles from around the country and the world recounting the collision, I became increasingly angry at the lack of empathy for the official in this incident. Yes, he made a mistake. Yes, the collision was his fault. And yes, he ought to have been paying more attention, looked both ways before crossing the track, etc., etc. But he was badly injured, not to mention deeply unfortunate that his moment of inattention put him in the path of the oncoming train.
I identified more with the official than with the runners. I thought about how one moment, he was just doing his job for the sport he loved, enjoying the fine evening and the fine performances, and seconds later he was on the ground, and on his way to the hospital. Who knows what might have changed for him forever in those few moments?
But the online world responded with mockery and derision. Where is the empathy for the human being here? And who even thought to wonder about who he was and what his story might be?
The world of track and field is wider than the current generation of athletes. The coaches, officials, and administrators include many former athletes whose lives in the sport are richer by far than the current competitors could imagine. And sure, there are probably some officials who do a poor job, and administrators who are into power trips, and all the rest of the things that athletes complain about. I understand, and I’ve dealt with that, too.
But it makes me angry that no one even thinks that this official might have been one of the good ones who just had a bad day. Maybe he was a former athlete, or maybe someone who had given up a lot to give back to the sport.
I mean, it might have been me.