Many of the questions roiling the sport of Athletics these days lie in the realms of redeveloping fan interest, meet restructuring, and performance enhancement, be it via drugs, shoes, or gender.
These are interesting questions because enhancement has always been the aim of this and every other game. Faster times, higher heights, and father throws have always motivated a goal-setting, can-do species like ours. So the question is where does this striving for enhancement cross the line into an unfair advantage? It’s an ages-old question shared by every game and sport.
Major League Baseball announced this week that the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros stole catcher’s signals to their pitchers throughout their run to the Series title via an elaborate camera tracking system in center field that relayed the signals to the dugout where simple sound cues alerted the hitter as to what kind of pitch was headed his way.
This finding led MLB to sanction the team with a monetary fine, suspensions, and loss of draft picks, while the Astros owner fired the team’s manager and GM. Now there are questions of how widespread the practice was around the sport.
But stealing catchers’ signs by runners on second base or deciphering steal or bunt signs from the opposing team’s third-base coach are as old as the game itself. And there’s always been a bit of a if-you’re-not-cheating-you’re-not-trying” element to baseball that was part of its old hayseed charm, like chewing tobacco. But that was before millions of dollars and the link from chaw to mouth cancer entered the game.
So where is the line between what’s legal sign-stealing and illegal advantage? Is it the sophisticated use of electronics?
These type of questions challenge every sport, and it is why there are governing bodies in the first place tasked with making the tough calls. We ditched the honor system a long time ago.
To be honest, the one and only way to eliminate the tension between the rules’ breakers and the rules’ makers is not to have human beings involved at all. So there are some built-in limitations. That said, you do the best you can with the best you’ve got given the frailties the species.
But now we enter the realm of this sport, Athletics, where it’s been showing up in the stats that the current enhancement in distance running times are coming more from a new shoe technology than from the men and women wearing them. So some recalibration seems to be is in order.
And now as reported in the Irish Independent by Cathal Dennehy, after a period of study, World Athletics is perhaps prepared to ban the new stacked midsole/carbon-plate technology that produced the faster times, but keep the records they already produced. Which begs the question, how far out will today’s Vaporfly-produced times last? Longer than the 1980’s drug-produced but never (publicly) busted times on the track?
This is what happens when oversight is late to the party.
No problem, BTW, with Eliud Kipchoge’s 2017 Monza Sub2 or 2019 Vienna INEOS 1:59 exhibitions that produced the two fastest marathon-length times in history. But that’s where the new shoe technology, laser-guided pacing, and interchanging pacer format belongs, in exhibitions, not in sanctioned competitions.
So once (and if) the new technology is banned, it’s no longer what to do about the present moving forward, but how to address the records that weren’t produced on a level playing field but atop a stacked midsole.
In the never ending question about the future of the sport, I like the distinction made by 1976 U. S. steeplechase Olympian Mike Roche who suggested categories of Track Classic and Open Racing to differentiate between the current and the new.
Nobody wants to discourage innovation. But at the same time, there also needs to be an on-ramp to widespread acceptance where it is the people rather than the technology that is the difference maker in performance.
So let’s stage exhibition competitions using the new technologies, but only in an Open Racing division until the governing body determines that accessibility is wide enough to allow it into the Classic format. As Roche pointed out, there is already a precedent to follow.
As for baseball, they’re still trying to figure out what to do with Pete Rose. I’ll leave that to them.