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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Why our attention to times is killing our sport - Science of running article

Why our attention to times is killing our sport - Science of running article

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Below is an interesting article about the obsession with times in elite athletics. The author makes several good points, especially about how boring the commentary is. Listening to the commentator at the Kawasaki Golden League on Sunday, I couldn't fathom how someone so hopeless could be commentating on the event. The Women's 400m Hurdles won by Lauren Wells was as bad as it gets. He had no idea who was leading or who were the contenders were. He didn't mention Lauren until the last couple of hurdles.

In an indirect way, this article, is an advert for pro-running. Seeing athletes come from a long way back to mow down the frontmarkers happens on a regular basis. We don't care too much for times so long as we have close and exciting events.

That Irish Collegiate 4x400m race is fantastic and well worth a look.

Why our attention to times is killing our sport

by Steve Magness
Science of Running Website
10 May 2016

A few weeks ago, a race video swept the internet, and media, by storm. There were segments on TV morning shows, Facebook posts by Good Morning America, and tweets galore all about one race.

Was it an Olympic final or a world record? Nope. How about a particularly fast race? Maybe a high school or college record? Not close.

Instead it was at an Irish Collegiate meet where the winning 4x400 relay team ran 4:02, and not to take away from these young ladies, a time that is very unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. Even taking into consideration Phil Healy's remarkable anchor leg, a 54 second split, it still is a split time that is seen every weekend at every major college meet across the country.

In other words, the times were not spectacular, but the race was.

Which brings me to point number one: we are killing our sport by focusing on times.

Understanding interest:
Why did this particular race capture the world's attention, and not many of the stellar relay races from say Penn Relays where we saw women running 4x400's 30+ seconds faster?

Drama and announcing.
The 4x400 race is easy to understand and see. Any individual could readily see how far behind Phil Healy's team was when they got the baton. They could see the insurmountable odds of making up such ground in one single lap. As the race unfolds, the focus is on the front runners to see who will take the crown, when all of the sudden we're informed of a major push coming from way back in the field. We're hit with this feeling of "can she really catch the leaders" which our logical brains scream back at us "no way!" In the final stretch, the drama plays out as we our on the edge of our seats to see if she can do the unthinkable.

All the while, the announcers with unabashed enthusiasm work towards a crescendo of excitement, dragging the viewer along with them.

What we're left with is a feel good, underdog drama narrated to perfection. The drama unfolds before our eyes, and the announcing supplements and guides us without being distracting. Similar to how laugh tracks works on sitcoms, great announcing with enthusiasm helps bring the viewer to a place of excitement. It's as if we trick our mind into thinking our buddies on the couch next to us are going nuts.

Not once did the announcers mention the split being run or times. It was a pure race.

Fast Times and Slow Announcing:
Somewhere long ago, we forgot that interest is about drama. It's about connecting with the viewer, whether live or on TV, and creating a shared experience.

Instead of playing up the drama, the inner team battles, the underdog stories, the athletes like the Emily Infeld's of the world who shouldn't have been with the leaders with a lap to go at the world championships; we focus on times.

Every diamond league race is set up to run fast, jump high or throw far. The splits are read incessantly with a focus on a world record, #1 time in the world, or some other astounding mark.

And what happens if the athlete comes up short? We are left disappointed.  A world record, or even world leading time, occurs very rarely by definition. Inevitably, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and failure.

Forget that the triple jumper pulled out the victory on the last jump of the competition, or the 800m runner who came out of nowhere in the last 50m to blow by the field.

Listen to our commentators talk about the tactical 1,500m or 5k races, as if it's a chore to even announce the races because they are going so slowly. You often hear commentators disparage the athletes for having 'no guts.' How are we supposed to feel as a fan if we hear the commentators switch into a negative mood as soon as a race goes tactical?

To me, a tactical race signals an opportunity for the unknown. It's like the boxer dancing around, bobbing and weaving the first two rounds, hesitating to throw his cards on the table until it's the right time. If covered correctly, a tactical affair is an opportunity to build tension and create drama. Why not focus on analyzing who has the best kick from 100 meters out, or perhaps 400m out? Talk about who needs to make an early move and who looks like they are nervously itching to go and who looks content to follow along. When the move is made, we should hear the excitement over the rapid sprinting that's about to occur.

Instead, what we get is boredom. The announcers are bored, so we are bored.

The futile chase for times:
Somewhere along the line, we sold our soul for world record and fast time chases. We decided that times would capture people's attention. We committed the sin of thinking that "World Record!" would capture people's hearts and minds. That we'd get newspaper headlines and coverage.

The problem with this model is it's unsustainable. If you set yourself up for only caring about fast times, you will fail more than you succeed. It's as if we went into every NBA game with the expectation that someone scores over 50 points in the game. That's all that matters, who cares about what team actually wins, the scoring title is king. We would be disappointed more than not.

In track, that's exactly what we've done. You can hear it in the announcers voice after another single file time trial race results in a kind of fast race with zero drama or intrigue. We've set ourselves up for disappointment.

So when we step back and realize that a 4x400 that ran 4:02, a time that my four college distance girls ran a few weeks ago, captured the world and went viral, we should step back and realize: Times don't catch peoples attention. Drama does. And kudos to those young ladies as the race had amazing drama, comeback, and fight across the board.

There's a reason that no one can ever tell you what time the Kentucky Derby winner ran this year.  It doesn't matter. It's about the drama of the race.

Track and Field has forgotten that.


Very timely to put this up then...

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