Do we care too much about times and distances in track and field?

I have become increasingly convinced that track and field is a sport designed for realists. However, like other sports most of its elite athletes are instead individuals possessing relentless ambition and desire. While it may seem naïve to label an entire group of sportspeople in such a manner, it is quite clear that competing at the highest level requires a certain type of character, although there are of course slight variations of it. What is even more interesting is how athletes react to the conditions and nature of their own sport. After football matches there are often long, inconclusive debates about who was man of the match because it is difficult to compare players who perform different roles and consequently measure their individual performance on different statistics. For example, how can one compare the importance of a certain number of interceptions made by a defensive midfielder to the amount of key chances created by an attacking midfielder? In track and field, it is perceptibly much more clear cut. Once all the athletes have crossed the finish line in a 100 metre race, we know that whoever crossed the line first produced the best performance. I want us to look beyond the winner though, and consider the mindset of the sprinter who finished in 5th or 6th place.

Rather than analysing a real athlete, it would perhaps be easier to use an imaginary one instead. Now let’s say they are 31 years-old, have not ran a personal best time for 100 metres in 5 years and times have never been quick enough to challenge for major championship medals. If I were to make a comparison with football again, I could talk of an attacking midfielder, also 31, who is making fewer assists each season, but yet their team is improving and winning more trophies. This is one of the many things that makes track and field unique because you are confronted head on by the realities of your performance and there is no way to paper over the cracks, unlike the footballer who is probably aided by their more able teammates. Even though the footballer would be aware of their lower output statistically, they can still play a valuable role in a team in which their strengths and weaknesses complement those of the other players and if they adjust their individual playing style in line with their growing limitations. From the perspective of a casual observer, the sprinter, on the other hand, only has to look at the times they are running to know that it is highly unlikely they will ever achieve their goal of winning a world championship medal. Despite this, the sprinter could argue, correctly or incorrectly, that they have been hindered by injuries, poor coaching or lifestyle choices and that their goal still remains achievable as a consequence. This is where my initial statement returns:

I have become increasingly convinced that track and field is a sport designed for realists.

It is intriguing yet also strange that in a sport almost entirely based on times and measurements, with everyone striving to run faster, throw further or jump further, that someone’s personal best can be reasonably irrelevant and not tell the full story. This is emphasised by the obsession both track and field fans and athletes have with rankings. Therefore, the times and measurements intended to bring clarity to the arguments of who the best in the world is in each event do not serve their purpose as well as it may seem, hence why the attitudes of many within the sport transcend the realism you would think clear ranking systems impose. This is exemplified by many athletes not considering their personal best to be definitive, with some citing poor conditions, muscle fatigue, race tactics, lack of training or even intentionally slowing down to the line, to name a few, as reasons why their personal best could or should be better than the one they are constantly attributed to.

Kim Collins pictured with the bronze medal he won at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.

The slightly diminished importance of times is highlighted by looking at the IAAF all-time ranking list for men’s 100 metres. Travis Padgett may have run 9.89 seconds for 100 metres in 2008, making him the joint 29th quickest man of all-time, but he has no major championship medals to his name, whereas Kim Collins has an inferior personal best of 9.93s, yet he has secured one gold medal and two bronze for the 100 metre distance at World Championships in a glittering career. Collins is clearly the more successful athlete, despite being slower, but his ability to perform in major championships combined with his longevity (he is still competing professionally at the grand old age of 41 years, which is basically 100 in athletics years) suggest that performing at a consistently good level and delivering at major championships are more important than running particularly quick on a couple of occasions at a lower level. This is not intended to discredit those who run quick times on a smaller stage, as it still requires incredible talent to do so, but instead to investigate the contextual importance of running quickly.

If we turn our attentions to the world record for men’s 100 metres, which I am sure you will be aware is still the 9.58s clocking by Usain Bolt in the 2009 IAAF World Championship final in Berlin, then surely this provides more than good enough evidence of the importance of times — we all marvelled at the sheer brilliance it took to not only break the world record, but to do so on the biggest stage. No one can doubt the significance of running a world record time, even at a lesser event, but if the next sprinter to break the men’s 100 metre world record fails to win World Championship gold during their career, will they be less revered than Bolt? Probably, yes. Take Leroy Burrell, a very successful American sprinter, who twice took the 100 metre world record away from Carl Lewis and has gold medals from the Olympics and World Championships in the 4x100 metre relay to his name. However, Lewis won a combined total of 5 gold medals in the 100 metres at Olympics and World Championships, whereas Burrell only has a World Championship silver to his name over this particular distance. Therefore, Carl Lewis is held in higher esteem than Burrell despite being 0.01s slower than him. It does not make Burrell’s former world record run of 9.85s in 1994 unimpressive, but perhaps it is less impressive than running marginally slower times amidst the pressure of major championship finals on your way to winning gold medals.

Owens vs Bolt — a mismatch? Apparently not.

Track and field legend Jesse Owens provides another reason why times cannot be read at face value. He ran a then world record time of 10.2s over 100 metres in June 1936, wining the 100 metres at the Olympic Games in 10.3s almost two months afterwards. At first glance this does not seem great compared to Usain Bolt’s array of sub-10 second performances, but it is better than you think. In his 2014 TED Talk, sports science writer David Epstein sought to compare the two athletes, revealing that if Bolt and Owens raced together Owens would have finished 14 feet behind Bolt in the 2013 World Championship final, which was won by the Jamaican sprinter in 9.77s. That gives the impression Bolt is a much more talented sprinter than Owens ever was, but what Epstein had to say next may make you change your mind…

“…Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran. Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig holes in the cinders to start from.”

Amazingly, if Owens was running on the same surface as Bolt he would have only been a solitary stride behind him. That is incredible even without considering the modern day advantages Bolt has had in terms of training and nutrition amongst other things. The fact that a 10.2s 100 metre run and another of 9.77s can be considered as almost the same quality demonstrates that times and distances in track and field do not bring clarity of who is the better athlete comparatively, even in the modern sporting era. This does not mean we should completely ignore them, and why would we considering the euphoria a world record performance can bring to fans and the positive attention it attracts to the sport? One cannot deny they are also a useful tool, albeit a limited one, to compare athletes when factors that affected each time are taken into consideration. But times do not stand the test of time (pun completely intended) and gradually become irrelevant, as we tend to remember the achievements of the great athletes in history better than their exact times or distances. Those times and distances still bear some importance but require context and they should by no means be the be-all and end-all when comparing athletes of any era or of any ability.