“I felt good, I was running fast. Then, as everybody does, I kind of glanced up at the big JumboTron and I see this little guy over my shoulder. I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I had to pick up the pace.” – Andrew Wheating, May 6, 2012 after winning the Oregon Twilight 1500 over Dorian Ulrey.
Please, please, please, would the straw-boatered officials of track and field take control of the JumboTrons and turn them off when athletes are making the turn and heading for home? (Note: just change the picture on the Tron the athletes can see straight ahead. Keep the other Trons going). How many times have we seen it, or have athletes like Wheating admitted it, that they just look up to see where their opponents are rather than having to swivel their heads to see what’s what? I know the Jumbotrons are there for us fans, but guess what, it compromises the racing for us, too.
At the core of the racing enterprise is making decisions in the heat of battle when precious blood has been shunted to the legs at the expense of the brain which still has to make the critical calls. Anyone who has raced at the outer limits of fatigue can recall those desperate times when you sense an attack from behind, even hear the crowd, but are too scared to turn and look. Or, have seen a clock or lap counter, and know perfectly well the numbers as displayed, but can’t quite get your blood-starved brain to make heads or tails of what those numbers mean.
Even in road racing we see this. At the 2007 U.S. Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City, the leader Ryan Hall saw the image of former world record holder Khalid Khannouchi on the JumboTron as Ryan passed the finish line to begin his final lap of Central Park. Worried about the legendary closing speed of Khannouchi, Hall knew that he couldn’t wait, and admitted as much after the race. He put down the hammer and pulled further away to victory. Behind, Special K was no longer so special, coming off injury and could only manage fourth place. But that’s not the point. Hall was privvy to information he ordinarily wouldn’t have had, and it changed how the race was run.
Call me a purist, but it’s more what boxers call ring generalship that I expound, the ability to think on your feet under duress. That je ne sais quoi that defines a champion: the ride along the rail, the elbowed opening at precisely the right moment, the strike for home when your rival is perfectly boxed. It’s not just speed. It’s the lime in the tonic, the fragrance, not just the beauty of the flower. To dismiss it for expedience is to diminish the sport. That’s how you sell it, with its refinements buffed and polished.
Part of racing is the consequence that goes along with leading, taking that step into that yawning chasm where all is unseen, where hope and fear co-mingle, and where knowledge now holds a price, whether in showing fear to a fast-closing opponent, or throwing off your form with the twisted strides needed to take that peak. If all you have to do is look up at a video screen, the price has been discounted, but so, too, the value and excitement.
Here’s the solution. If there are two JumboTrons, one on either end of the stadium, simply change the picture on the one the athletes will be facing when they head up the backstretch, or the one they’d see down the homestretch. In either case, leave on the JumboTron that is at their backs so the audience can still follow along.
Modern technology should at all times be utilized to improve the sport. It shouldn’t be used to corrupt what’s best about it.