Perhaps it has been the Olympic motto – citius, altius, fortius- that has been responsible. But in our time-conscious athletics’ world, we sometimes forget that a championship — hell, any race – is first and foremost a competition amongst athletes, not a trial against the tyranny of time – though on occasions the clock is a worthy opponent. Thus, with pacers removed from the agenda throughout this weekend’s IAAF World Indoor Track & Field Championships in Birmingham, England, athletics fans will get to see a myriad of tactical races that produce champions who might not have been considered favorites going in.
When a pacer is plugged into a race a number of things happen: 1) the tactical brain is turned off as everyone knows exactly what is coming. The only question to be answered is, ‘can you attend that pace or can’t you?’ 2) pecking order is an unspoken but powerful presence, meaning the runner with the biggest appearance fee, and for whom the pace is being established, is automatically ushered into the catbird seat behind the pacer(s). Another competitor can break that rule if he/she chooses, but in so doing risks losing future invitations. 3) no actual racing takes place until the final pacer steps off, erasing a lot of any surprise that might emerge from the proceedings.
As we see in Birmingham, runners have gears and gas available to constantly reshuffle their positions, both in and out from the rail, as well as up and back in the pack. This is because they haven’t been stretched to the anaerobic edge by a predetermined pace. Instead the pack generates its own speed from amidst the roiling effort. Consequently, we get to see how the middle distance races become elastic bands of surge and resettle, then surge again as the packs reshuffle every time another racer or two hit the gas to ensure a better pack position.
Unlike in paced races, where pecking order and appearance fees pre-rank pack hierarchy, in a championship race, it is every man and woman for him or herself.
If a track meet wants to promote a special record attempt amidst its races, all the better. But to make every race 800m and above a paced affair, strips whimsy and caprice from the mix and homogenizes the sport beyond the grasp of all but the hard core fans.
Fortunately, you can’t pace field events. Watching yesterday’s stirring men’s long jump final, where leaders kept one-upping one another as the rounds counted down, spoke to the heart of every athletics’ fan. In the end, a budding new star rose to the top step of the podium in 19 year-old Juan Miguel ECHEVARRÍA of Cuba., whose fifth round bound of 8.46m pipped defending world champion Luvo MANYONGA of South Africa, whose fourth round 8.44m had catapulted him into the lead. The USA’s Marquis DENDY finished close behind in bronze medal position with his fifth round 8.42m.
If we learn anything this weekend, it is that racing and competition must once again become the calling card of the sport if it ever hopes to reconnect with a wider audience. Also that it takes practice to negotiate a highly banked indoor track at Championship speed.