HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HENRY RONO

With synonyms like ‘improvement’, ‘sweetening’, and ‘augmentation’, the word ‘enhancement’ swings easily through positive, neutral, and slightly pejorative connotations.

While you can sweeten deals, improve skills, and augment reality, enhancement has always been the name of the game in athletics as outlined in the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius.

The question, as always, is where does the drive for enhancement cross the line ethically, either against one’s opponents via PEDs (hello, Russia), or against the preceding era whose times, distances, and heights were produced under different conditions and/or regulations? Think in terms of track surfaces, starting blocks, vaulting pole composition, javelin size and weight, and new super stack, carbon-plated shoes as but a few examples of dividing line eras within the sport.

We all work under a series of assumptions, whether recognized or not.

We are all born with a situational awareness, as point-of-view defines both centers and peripheries for us all. Much as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so too, is one man’s center, another man’s periphery, or one athlete’s PED, another one’s TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption). Thus, do priorities skew according to one’s POV, the age-old standing (or in our case, running) in another man’s shoes.

Which is to say, we should all remain open-minded about what we believe. Not be uncommitted to our beliefs, so much as mindful of all the previous “beliefs” that fell to new evidence, perhaps most famously the Geocentric model of the universe, made obsolete by the Copernican Heliocentric Theory.

As an inquisitive, investigative species, we are forever perched at the threshold of new learning. Belief, therefore, shouldn’t be confused with wisdom, just as hypotheses are simply precursors to verifiable theory.

Today, the Grand Biocentric Design theory posits consciousness itself as the creator of everything rather than just its observer. Like with Schrödinger’s mysterious cat, the act of observation is said to create the very reality that is being observed.

*

Many of the questions roiling the sport of athletics these days are in the realms of redeveloping fan interest, whether through meet restructuring, venue renovation, and performance enhancement, be it via drugs, shoes, or gender identification. World Athletics muckety-muck, Lord Coe, even sent out a questionnaire a while back asking for ideas on the future, and has high hopes for the coming World Championships in Eugene, Oregon (barring any Covid-19 variant complications).

Faster times, higher heights, and father throws have always been the goal for a can-do species like ours. So the question is, where does this striving for enhancement cross the line?

Major League Baseball always had a quaint if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ mentality. Very charming, like chewing tobacco, until San Diego Padres’ all-time great Tony Gwynn died in 2014 at age 54 from cancer in the salivary gland, the result of his longtime habit of chewing tobacco.

Then, Major League Baseball discovered the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros were stealing catcher’s signals via a secret camera perched in center field. MLB sanctioned the team while the Astros fired the team’s manager and GM. Questions followed, asking how widespread the practice had been around the game. Ten years before, Spygate in the NFL caused similar questions.

But stealing catchers’ signs by runners on second base, or trying to decipher bunt or base-stealing signs from the opposing team’s third-base coach are as old as the game of baseball itself. So where is the line between what’s legal sign-stealing and illegal advantage? Is it the sophisticated use of electronics?

These types 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. But just as it is government’s role to regulate the least to allow for the greatest good, once government becomes dependent on one of its constituents, the system inevitably corrupts.

Look at the state of Washington D. C. after the redline separating corporate money and politics was erased by the Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United ruling equating corporate donations with free speech.

Kenyan great Henry Rono turned 70 this past week (born 12 February 1952, in Kapsabet). Now, this (Super Bowl LVI) weekend, we witnessed another bundle of new records on indoor tracks that obliterated the old marks – though the American record in the indoor mile hung on for dear life against a mighty challenge from Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker).

1978, The Year of Rono

Are we to believe today’s runners are significantly better athletes than the Henry Rono of 1978? Or, is the current enhancement in distance running times attributable to a governing body coming late to the dance as an external source rather than a new level of excellence gets exhibited by track’s modern stars? That is a rhetorical question, BTW. Some recalibration in how we think of these new records, therefore, seems in order in simple respect for our own past.

Time alone doesn’t define an athlete. It’s why GOAT conversations in distance running still include names like Nurmi and Zatopek, despite their times being pedestrian by modern standards.

Not suggesting we dismiss the new times at all. Rather that we reorient them against themselves, not against their precursors. It’s only fair to each era’s champions. Happy birthday, Henry! In terms of peak performance, you may still sit atop the whole pile!

END

5 thoughts on “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HENRY RONO

  1. All marks turned in after a certain date in recent history should really be asterisked relative to the obvious footwear assist.

    Regardless, as you note, Mr. Rono is clearly high atop the G.O.A.T. conversation…no doubt about it.

    warmest regards,
    Mike Fanelli

  2. Rono was a Leader for his Country;he broke new ground in the Distance Running World.Twice he was hit with Olympic boycotts.Henry Rono has a terrific book,about moving to the US,becoming college student,and his struggles with a Different Culture. i met him,and raced him several times.i could never beat him…I liked his Courage..For a while he lived in the Boston area and he got to know my brother,Charlie and our Staff of Runners,who knew who he was;what he had done.He worked at our store awhile;became aTeacher out West..i knew the Boycotts hit him hard;He was way more than great athlete…
    Bill Rodgers

    1. Thanks, Bill. I remember well out trip to Puerto Rico for the 1978 San Blas Half Marathon. You battled Henry and two other Kenyans, just losing in a final sprint on a brutally hot, humid day. It was during the blizzard of 78, and we all had to spend an extra week in Puerto Rico before Logan airport reopened. Todd Miller, Tommy Leonard, Kent Smith, lots of Bostonians were on the trip. We stayed with Angel Nunez. I believe it was one of your only losses of the year besides Fukuoka (Marathon) to close the year. Henry RONO was a lion for his country, perhaps only behind Keino in importance at the time. Glad he’s joined us as a septuagenarian. Thanks for contributing, as always.
      Toni

  3. Comparing between different eras is a fool’s errand.

    Though I would love to see someone try a 5000 heat like Rono did in 1978 doing the first mile in 4:08 as a fartlek run. And win by 200 meters and running a Steeplechase heat on the same day.

    Rono was jaw dropping.

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