Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Protest at Speed City

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Tommie Smith as a statue

Tommie Smith as a statue

After Eugene, I made a last-minute work trip to San Jose. I had a few spare hours between wrapping up at the client site and returning to the airport for the red-eye, so what’s there for a track fan to do in San Jose but pay a quick visit to Speed City?

Speed City was San Jose State University, and in 1968 its track team under Coach Bud Winter was loaded with sprinters. It seems beyond paradox to me that Speed City delivered two men known today principally for standing still, or that those men had to run as fast as they did to earn their moment of immobility, but 1968 was a year of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects. There’s a statue on the campus of San Jose State which is both.

If you’ve done even a little reading about Olympic History you probably already know the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos which is commemorated in this statue. Smith on the top step and Carlos behind him created one of the most indelible images of the Mexico City Olympics when they raised their fists and bowed their heads on the medal stand as the U.S. national anthem played for the 200m medal ceremony. Smith and Carlos are shoeless (the statue shows two of their shoes on the stand) and Carlos wears a red, green and yellow necklace. Both are wearing pins for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Forty-one years later, it’s still visibly clear that these men had a grievance.

That moment of stillness on the stand (the statue’s silver step is empty but bears the words, “Peter Norman stood here in solidarity”) was earned with twenty seconds of absolute velocity which lead modern observers to wonder how Smith and Carlos might have compared with the likes of Bolt, Johnson and Gay had they had the benefit of modern athletics technology. And it was followed by years of chaos which would’ve given the pair a grievance if they hadn’t already had one.

Smith and Carlos stood on the podium in their socks.

Smith and Carlos stood on the podium in their socks.

The statue is moving in an unexpected sense: I felt as though the larger-than-life Smith and Carlos were about to step down from their medal stand and interrogate me, or at least demand that I, too, “take a stand.” (It looks as though other people have stood where Norman stood, for pictures or for soapboxing.) It’s really the only image they could have used, of course, but I sort of wish there was a similarly moving statue, perhaps down by the track, that showed the speed in Speed City as well.

(There are a number of interesting books about Mexico City and the Olympic Project for Human Rights. In particular I’d highlight Smith’s Silent Gesture, which would have benefitted greatly from either a harsher editor or a more assertive ghostwriter or both, and Frank Murphy’s The Last Protest, about Lee Evans; I haven’t read Murphy’s book but on the basis of his previous two I know it has to be excellent.)

About Boston in 1985

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Everyone has mentioned, in their Boston roundups (including mine) how the women’s winning time was the slowest since 1985.

Everyone mentioned in their previews that no American (male or female) has won the Boston marathon since 1985.

Nobody has mentioned that 1986 was the first year that the Boston Marathon awarded prize money.

I do not think these things are unrelated.

Is World Cross on the decline?

Monday, April 6th, 2009

In the wake of last month’s World Cross Country Championships, held this year in Amman, Jordan, I’ve seen several different articles asking the question, “Whatever happened to World Cross?” (And, as usual, I’m late to the party.) Pat Butcher sums up the question best: World Cross used to be (ca. late 1970s, early 1980s) the single best distance-running event on the annual calendar. Now it’s not. Why?

Butcher (and, in a follow-up, Larry Eder) goes on to suggest a number of factors: Increased competition for attention and top athletes from spring marathons. Domination by East Africans (and the East Africans are aware that this is a problem, but like the lobstermen in my home town, they can’t figure out how to save their industry without also cutting off their own livelihood) (see also here and here). The loss of strong individual English-speaking personalities. The overall worldwide decline of the sport. IAAF mismanagement. (The specific form of this mismanagement is not detailed, but in this case simply failing to find the magic solution might count.) There is even a nod to my colleague Steven Downes’ argument that golf-course-like venues (“10,000m with one hill”) have had the unintended consequence of removing some unpredictability from the event’s results.

Despite my age, I have a lot of sympathy for World Cross nostalgia. As a budding track fan, my first brush with international competition was the last World Cross Country Championships held in North America, when Boston’s Franklin Park hosted the event in 1992. Every athletics fan remembers that year, even if, like myself, they weren’t actually there (my older brother was). Lynn Jennings won her third consecutive championship; John Ngugi won his fifth in astoundingly dominating fashion. The junior races included a entrants like Paula Radcliffe (who won her first international title) and Haile Gebrselassie. Runner’s World ran at least four pages of photos afterward. Yes, in print. Professionally, my return to international events was at the 2006 World Cross in Fukuoka, Japan. (It was also my first visit to Asia.)

But I wonder if maybe the nostalgia isn’t making us ask the wrong question. Perhaps the question isn’t, “What happened to World Cross?” but “How has the world changed since World Cross was at its height?” Look, for example, at this year’s venue: Jordan wants to become an international sports destination, and World Cross is a sort of starter event for them. Leave aside what that idea (and the Times) implies about the event’s status and consider the changing global landscape. Of course World Cross isn’t what it used to be; the world isn’t what it used to be, and the athletics landscape no longer centers around Europe. That kind of change is going to create casualties, and World-Cross-as-it-was is one of those casualties.

Looked at this way, one can still blame the IAAF for not finding the magic formula to maintaining at least the appeal and importance of the event, if not the same face of it. But at least they’ve been trying. To see the bin World Cross might otherwise be headed for, look up the history of the International Peace Marathon in Kosice, Slovakia, which once rubbed shoulders with Fukuoka and Boston as one of the preeminent international marathons.

If we stop asking, “How can we make World Cross what it was?” and ask the harder question, “What should World Cross be in today’s athletics world?” we’re going to get a lot closer to a great event.

Does indoors matter for field events?

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Steve Hooker’s meteoric rise up the all-time indoor pole vault list (he was tied for #4 after Millrose, and stands alone at #2 behind seven Sergei Bubka marks after the Boston Indoor Games) begs a question: what’s the difference between outdoors and indoors when we’re talking about the pole vault?

Track athletes obviously see a difference in the physics of 200m banked tracks indoors as compared to 400m flat tracks outdoors. Adam Nelson pointed out that the composition of the indoor shot, which is generally padded to avoid damaging arena floors, changes the grip putters can get on their implement, and that the feeling of the ring under their feet is also different, but the marks between indoors and outdoors are not generally very large. (22.66m indoors, 23.12m outdoors.)

There are two significant differences between the indoor and outdoor pole vaults: wind and runway. Wind is the obvious change: sometimes there’s wind (and other weather) outdoors. There is never wind indoors, at least not of any significant magnitude. This means vaulters don’t have to adjust for conditions, a small but appreciable advantage. Runways are a little more subtle; indoor facilities sometimes (not always) have springy, elevated runways like the one the Boston Indoor Games organizers trucked up from Madison Square Garden for vaulting at the Boston Indoor Games last night. This can also be an advantage if the vaulter is used to the runway. Combined, then, it’s not too surprising that unlike nearly every other event, the pole vault WR is marginally superior indoors to its outdoor counterpart: 6.15m indoors compared to 6.14m outdoors. (Both, of course, held by Bubka.)

Hooker highlighted this Saturday night when he selected 6.06m as an intermediate height before approaching the World Record. It’s an arbitrary height indoors, smack in the middle of the block of Bubka which tops the all-time list. Outdoors, however, it’s a watershed: three men, Maksim Tarasov, Dmitry Markov, and Brad Walker, all at 6.05m marks outdoors. On a combined all-time list, then, Hooker is #2, with a lot of Bubka ahead of him, and that 6.16m height he keeps trying is the highest anyone has ever vaulted, period. There isn’t a distinction in his mind between indoors and outdoors.

Will the statisticians continue making a distinction? Hooker should have the Australian Record now, for example. Will the Australian track statisticians give it to him, or call him the indoor record holder? Considering there are no indoor facilities in Australia, and their domestic outdoor season usually happens during the European and North American indoor season, those lists can’t be terribly deep.

Are there other events where the distinction between World Record and World Indoor Record is meaningless? The men’s high jump records differ by only 2cm. The men’s long jump is off by .14m; the men’s triple jump is off by even more. The shot put is the only comparable throwing event. Women’s PV is about 10cm, both held by Yelena Isinbayeva; women’s high jump is only 1cm lower indoors than out, and the long jump and triple jump show about the same spread between indoors and outdoors as the men’s events do. The women’s shot put records are even closer than the men’s. But only in the men’s pole vault is the indoor mark superior.

I’m guessing that the reason behind this is not the conditions but the depth of competition. More top athletes have faced more and more challenging competition outdoors, over a longer history. I think indoor and outdoor field events are heading for convergence, and Steve Hooker may be at the front of the wave.

One of the most successful nations in Boston Marathon history

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

That would be Canada.

My Reach the Beach Relay teammate Neil informs me that David Blaikie’s Boston: The Canadian Story, one of those hard-to-find history books mentioned in reverent tones among serious track geeks (or just Boston geeks), is available online, at Blaikie’s website.