Friday, June 5, 2009

Fair Advantage

Nippert and I were descending from Cheyenne Canyon on an afternoon run when he dropped back about 30 feet behind me. This is about how far I’d have to be, he said, to blah blah blah. I said he was to far back to hear, so he caught back up and explained the new USATF policy about “pacing” at the national 100 mile trail championships that it sanctions. Pacers aren’t allowed, Nippert told me, because they provide an unfair advantage. [Pacers are runners that aren’t registered competitors, but run along with competitors, generally in the later stages of ultramarathons.] In the interest of safety, competitors may have “safety runners” who must run at least 10 yards back of the competitor. The use of pacers has been much discussed among ultrarunners. I won’t rehash the debate here. I would like to explore the broader question of fairness in sport, though, in particular what constitutes a fair advantage. I am training in Colorado Springs, after all, and so are many other aspiring athletes, including those at the Olympic Training Center. We are here because training at elevation provides an advantage during competition. It is a legal advantage. Does that make it fair? Don’t worry; I’m not feeling twinges of guilt at my strategy. The race I’m training for is at elevation, and I (now) have convincing evidence that those who don’t prepare for this are at an unfair disadvantage.

I grew up three houses from the railroad tracks on North Bayly Avenue in Louisville. The neighborhood has sprung back in the time since we moved out, but in the 1970’s it was on the rough side. My brothers and I cruised the streets on our bicycles, teaming up with other boys for games of bike chase. There were older bullies lingering on the fringes, but for the most part, we settled things among ourselves. My best friend through elementary school was Mike Grabhorn. Like me, he had a dinnertime and a curfew when he was due home. Otherwise, we were on our own. Our families were unusual in the neighborhood. Other kids had fewer things to count on. He was a year older, and had another friend who was the same age named Will Church. We all got along well enough. We organized games of baseball or kickball in the street in front of Will’s House. We played rough at times. Disputes came up, and had to be settled. First we yelled, and then we got in each other’s faces. If that didn’t take care of it, we fought.

We were inflamed by anger or injustice, and likely engaged with all available passion. Still, we knew the rules. We escalated until someone gave up. I remember a fight between Mike and myself. Will hovered nearby as a sort of referee. We were fighting methodically, looking for clean body blows. When Mike threw a roundhouse and caught my cheek I became enraged. “You hit my face!” I screamed and dove into him, tackling him to the ground. We didn’t do head blows. There was no point. A fight between kids, just like the ritualized competition between the males of almost any species, is circumscribed. While our immediate motivations may be visceral, and our means distastefully violent, there is an unspoken goal to preserve the peace, and each other. We were settling disputes, not perpetuating them. There were no tricks to winning. We needed to settle the question of dominance.
Imagine if Mike pulled out a rag soaked in ether. While we grappled Mike could easily have covered my mouth and nose with the rag and incapacitated me, “winning” the fight. That wouldn’t have settled anything. The outcome only makes sense to the extent that the fight was fair. The results aren’t even interesting otherwise. Among kids of my generation there was such a thing as a good fight, and it was a fair fight.

Footraces are as primal as fist fights: open battles for dominance. Good races settle the question. We did these as kids too: across the schoolyard. I was never the fastest sprinter. It didn’t occur to me to prepare to run faster. I already knew where I stacked up compared to the other kids. None of us prepared. The races were fair. We got the information we needed: namely, who ranks 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

What is it about a boy that determines his place among other boys? Is it his talent? How about his determination? Is it different for a fight than for a race? How does that change with the more elaborate, and mature, contests between adults? Most of us will probably say that a schoolyard sprint is mostly a test of God-given speed. There will be variation between kids, and those differences will remain pretty consistent. In the case of fighting, we may want to say “physical talent” (whatever that is) plays a role, but another element is added. Because fights, as I have described them, escalate until someone submits, a fight can be won by the person more willing to risk injury (or at least to bluff that he is!). That willingness, I propose, is the precursor to the “will to win” in modern, adult, athletic competition.

Willingness to risk injury is a kind of commitment. I was stronger than my younger brother, John Leigh. I could pin him, holding his arms down with my knees. I remember using my knuckle to grind into his head (we called this a noogie). There wasn’t much point, though, because no way was he going to submit and “cry uncle.” That’s determination, and it compels respect from others. It says: I’m willing to suffer injury rather than submit to you or your wishes. Athletes show this kind of commitment. Aren’t we compelled by the players who dive to make the save? Not only do they retain possession, but teammates are uplifted and the opposing team is deflated. How can you win against someone who will risk everything? Of course, if they really risked everything, then sometimes they would lose everything. While this may be true in adult fights, sporting contests have evolved to ritualize, and spread out, the risk.

Athletes play with risk. They train to the precipice of injury, and then stay as close to the edge as possible. They constantly break their bodies down with grueling workouts. They prepare rigorously so that during the contest, their performance seems more risky than it really is. For career athletes, risk is managed. The preparation is a way of accruing an advantage over opponents. It is compelling because of its relationship to commitment. We admire, and honor, the commitment that athletes make. It shows the will to win – and it can determine the winner. Wouldn’t it be more fair, though, if we disallowed preparation for athletic contests? Imagine that every contest was something completely unexpected, so that you couldn’t prepare. Wouldn’t that put everyone on more equal footing? I think the answer is yes. I also think that we don’t want fair contests. We want to see who has created the greatest advantage – by his or her commitment. This is the advantage inherited from the willingness to take greater risk than one’s competitor.

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