Tuesday, 13 March 2012

#53: Good Day Sunshine

Until a few minutes ago, the only thing I could possibly think to write about was the weather. It's only the second full week of March and I am trying to get used to the idea that Winter may be over and Summer already arrived. Wonderful weather predicted for the coming weeks will mean a return to running in short shorts and t-shirts... and maybe an early tan! My training schedule shows a lot of running to come from now until 06 May, so bring on the mileage. Given that winter didn't really occur this year and running has been blissful since early January, we really haven't any reasons to complain about weather all year! So I’ll move right along.

I was just introduced to an idea which seems so foreign to me that I am desperately trying to make sense of it and make an informed opinion as to its value. The 'idea' is that of handicapped racing as utilized by the 'Victorian Athletic League.' The FAQ section of their website describes it as:

"Handicapped racing is designed to ensure that every athlete has a chance to win. This means that athletes are allocated a handicap according to their ability. The fastest runner is placed on a backmark and gives a start to slower runners. This ensures that racing is close and exciting, with spectacular finishes... Handicap racing is an Australian tradition where every competitor is given a chance to share in success."

So essentially this means that a guy like me, who hasn't a hope in Haiti of competing at an elite level, could toe the line with the fastest in the world (say Usain Bolt), be given a 'fair' head start based on the difference in our abilities, and sprint to the finish for the win. This is the same idea as the Longboat Relay happening this weekend before the New Member's Brunch where Bert pairs faster runners with slower runners in a two-person relay with each team member running 1500m which will ideally end with a close, photo finish-like scenario. In another: 2, 3 and 4 hour marathoners could also compete in the same race with slower runners starting earlier and the faster ones having to catch up/make up ground with everyone being very close at the finish. Ultimately, it attempts to give every athlete of every ability an equal opportunity at winning.

At first I was baffled, and mildly annoyed, by this. What a stupid idea, I thought. So now, not only are the fastest guys in the world going to have to beat each other; but they have to beat amateurs like me too! If we can already find a hundred athletes who can run super fast and compete with each other, why should someone with a fraction of the talent even think they have the right to compete on the same stage?! I completely dismissed the idea as utterly ridiculous only to be challenged with: "Well what's the difference? It's just replacing one arbitrary rule of sport with another?!" I guess that's true if you consider the arbitrary rule of sport to be: run a given distance in as little time as possible. All rules in sport are arbitrary! Honestly, my fundamental notion of what sport was and what it meant was challenged to such a degree that I was unable to make any sense of this.

I suppose this irks me so much due to my perception that the current culture of sport has increasingly come to accommodate the growing hoards of recreational participants over the competitive and elite athlete. It also espouses the 'everybody wins' mentality and devalues the very real existence of losing and competition. Moreover, if my ability is significantly less than another person; could I ever feel right at having a realistic chance of beating them at a race? Personally, I could not. Others might jump at such an opportunity, to beat the 'best' by being sub-par; and to me, that reflects a disturbed attitude towards sport in general. Also, who determines these handicaps and how are they ensured to be fair? The FAQ states: "Stewards and Handicappers keep an eye on all runners to ensure they run to the best of their ability and do not deliberately run slow to get a better handicap. The stewards can fine athletes that are found to be deliberately running slow or do not provide correct details about past performances." Sounds like more unnecessary policing and rule enforcement to me, not to mention that this seems like a near impossible thing to do objectively and creates entirely new avenues of cheating in sport. Finally, if everyone were realistically able to compete and succeed, who determines who and how many can participate. Suddenly you have an entire population capable of making the Olympic team!?

Anyway, it's a fascinating topic and definitely controversial. My position is opposition based on my own appreciation for high performance sport and competition in general. I'm sure others would disagree and commend the idea for its inclusiveness and fairness. In the end, I doubt we'll see handicapped events at the Olympics anytime soon.

Some context: I was presented this 'idea' as a potential new way of thinking about competitive sport, specifically the Olympic Games. I am opposed to the idea of 'handicapped sport' as a replacement/alternate to high performance sport only. I agree it has enormous potential to increase participation, inclusiveness/fairness and 'level the playing field.' Quite honestly, it truly would make competition a lot more exciting too!


Eugene Scanlan said...

Bet 2012 will be your best year ever!

Roger said...

Dan, Think golf. Golf players have used a handicap system for years. It does seem to work well and allows older or less co-ordinated players to compete with younger or better players. However, no 24 handicap golfer is going to be playing in serious competitions with Tiger.