The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Modern Technology Not Always Better

Mar 26th, 2009
3:11 pm PST

We’ve become accustomed to technological advances in our world `making things better. But every once in a while I think that “old school” may have been better. For example, while microwave popcorn does have its place, nothing beats fresh, “real popped” popcorn. That’s one reason most everyone loves to order popcorn at the movies – its just better than micro waved.

When I look at all the technological innovations that have come to the world of track and field, every once in a while I reminisce about the Good Old Days when something was just, better. In this case, I think it was better when results – specifically times – weren’t so immediate.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no way I would want to go back to the “stone age” of timing when the finish line was crowded with timers trying to figure out who had the “best” time to a tenth of a second. But I wouldn’t mind going back to the 1980’s version of auto timing – good old Accutrak. Why, you might ask? Because it seemed that the fans focused more on the competition and less on the times. Let me explain.

Back in the early days of automatic timing there was a lag time of fifteen or twenty minutes between the end of a race and the announcement of the time. There was an actual photo that had to be printed out and then read by the timer. Close races required more careful reading of the photo to get it all just right. Therefore it took a while before anyone knew exactly how fast a race was – and it was AWESOME! Because instead of all eyes being on the stadium clock, all eyes were on the athletes in the race. So the “buzz” that you heard as the athletes were crossing the line was the sound of fans all over the stands talking about what happened DURING the race. In other words the focus during the course of the meet was on the competition FIRST.

We fans often spent that 20 minutes or so discussing starts, mid race surges, and finishes in the sprints, and strategy and moves in the mid and long distances. THEN we got the treat of finding out the times for the contestants – and that created a second “buzz” in the stands. And if the race was near WR territory it was an added bonus as we realized how close we were to witnessing history. Every race was exciting. And the time between one race and another was often spent in discussion of the previous race – first what happened, then how fast. The only disappointments occurred when your favorite lost.

Today is a totally different experience. Now, in the age of “instant gratification”, and clocks sitting right by the finish line, most eyes are on the clock as everyone wants to know if a record is being set. Because, after all, THAT is how the sport is marketed today as meets are promoted based on who is going to have a record attempt! The gun goes off, fans watch the race for a moment but then the focus heads straight to the clock. Trying to discuss the “race” right after is almost impossible as most folk sitting next to me usually miss the actual race. Instead the discussion is about the record attempt – if such was the pre race build up – or about how disappointing the time was if it was no where close to a record! No one cares any more about how competitive the race might have been. As a matter of fact, I find that most fans don’t even see the race itself until they go home and look it up on You Tube! Then the discussion is on message boards and usually focuses on the winner and what he or she could have done to achieve a better TIME! Discussion about the race itself is virtually non existent except in those rare occasions when we have a “match race” taking place – a future post on THAT topic.

The point being that through the use of modern technology we have taken the focus off of what used to make the sport great – the competition itself! And, frankly, the solution is quite simple, turn off the stadium clock for all races under 400 meters, and for the final lap of all races over 400 meters. Then hold the announcement of the final time until the athletes have been cleared from the track and they have been notified personally of their times – like in the good old days when the ATHLETES were the first to know! Say somewhere between 10 to 15 minutes. Take the focus off the times and put it back on the athletes. The clock can still run during the race for the middle and long distances to help with pacing for the athletes, coaches and fans that are into that sort of thing. But having gotten the splits up to the bell lap, it will only be a matter of math to find out the final split once the final times are given. So with the clock off, fans can then focus on the final lap battle for victory and placings in the middle and long distance events as well.

In the case of the sprints, this will put the focus back on the race itself and the nuances of the competition. In the process I think it will help in the development of “personalities” as the average fan will become more familiar with the athletes and their competitive personalities. And in all running events it will place less emphasis on time as the only component by which to gauge a race.

Focusing on times / World Records has been a recipe for disaster for track and field in my opinion. The odds that you’ll have a WR in any given meet is relatively low. That means essentially that most meets are doomed to failure before the first event even takes place! If we can get the focus back on the competition itself perhaps we can build a better following in the sport. The fastest sport in the world NEVER talks about records – auto racing. Auto racing is all about the competition and the competitors. With success being gauged solely on winning, losing, and overall placement. And one need look no further for a sport that is thriving and growing right here in the US! Perhaps we can learn something from a sport where speed is king. Not to mention from our own past. Because sometimes I think “old school” was better.

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