A few weeks ago, a race video swept the internet, and media, by storm. There were segments on TV morning shows, Facebook posts by Good Morning America, and tweets galore all about one race.

Was it an Olympic final or a world record? Nope. How about a particularly fast race? Maybe a high school or college record? Not close.

Instead it was at an Irish Collegiate meet where the winning 4×400 relay team ran 4:02, and not to take away from these young ladies, a time that is very unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. Even taking into consideration Phil Healy’s remarkable anchor leg, a 54 second split, it still is a split time that is seen every weekend at every major college meet across the country.

In other words, the times were not spectacular, but the race was.

Which brings me to point number one: we are killing our sport by focusing on times.

Understanding interest:
Why did this particular race capture the world’s attention, and not many of the stellar relay races from say Penn Relays where we saw women running 4×400’s 30+ seconds faster?

Drama and announcing.

The 4×400 race is easy to understand and see. Any individual could readily see how far behind Phil Healy’s team was when they got the baton. They could see the insurmountable odds of making up such ground in one single lap. As the race unfolds, the focus is on the front runners to see who will take the crown, when all of the sudden we’re informed of a major push coming from way back in the field. We’re hit with this feeling of “can she really catch the leaders” which our logical brains scream back at us “no way!” In the final stretch, the drama plays out as we our on the edge of our seats to see if she can do the unthinkable.

All the while, the announcers with unabashed enthusiasm work towards a crescendo of excitement, dragging the viewer along with them.

What we’re left with is a feel good, underdog drama narrated to perfection. The drama unfolds before our eyes, and the announcing supplements and guides us without being distracting. Similar to how laugh tracks works on sitcoms, great announcing with enthusiasm helps bring the viewer to a place of excitement. It’s as if we trick our mind into thinking our buddies on the couch next to us are going nuts.

Not once did the announcers mention the split being run or times. It was a pure race.

Fast Times and Slow Announcing:
Somewhere long ago, we forgot that interest is about drama. It’s about connecting with the viewer, whether live or on TV, and creating a shared experience.

Instead of playing up the drama, the inner team battles, the underdog stories, the athletes like the Emily Infeld’s of the world who shouldn’t have been with the leaders with a lap to go at the world championships; we focus on times.

Every diamond league race is set up to run fast, jump high or throw far. The splits are read incessantly with a focus on a world record, #1 time in the world, or some other astounding mark.

And what happens if the athlete comes up short? We are left disappointed.  A world record, or even world leading time, occurs very rarely by definition. Inevitably, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and failure.

Forget that the triple jumper pulled out the victory on the last jump of the competition, or the 800m runner who came out of nowhere in the last 50m to blow by the field.

Listen to our commentators talk about the tactical 1,500m or 5k races, as if it’s a chore to even announce the races because they are going so slowly. You often hear commentators disparage the athletes for having ‘no guts.’ How are we supposed to feel as a fan if we hear the commentators switch into a negative mood as soon as a race goes tactical?

To me, a tactical race signals an opportunity for the unknown. It’s like the boxer dancing around, bobbing and weaving the first two rounds, hesitating to throw his cards on the table until it’s the right time. If covered correctly, a tactical affair is an opportunity to build tension and create drama. Why not focus on analyzing who has the best kick from 100 meters out, or perhaps 400m out? Talk about who needs to make an early move and who looks like they are nervously itching to go and who looks content to follow along. When the move is made, we should hear the excitement over the rapid sprinting that’s about to occur.

Instead, what we get is boredom. The announcers are bored, so we are bored.

The futile chase for times:
Somewhere along the line, we sold our soul for world record and fast time chases. We decided that times would capture people’s attention. We committed the sin of thinking that “World Record!” would capture people’s hearts and minds. That we’d get newspaper headlines and coverage.

The problem with this model is it’s unsustainable. If you set yourself up for only caring about fast times, you will fail more than you succeed. It’s as if we went into every NBA game with the expectation that someone scores over 50 points in the game. That’s all that matters, who cares about what team actually wins, the scoring title is king. We would be disappointed more than not.

In track, that’s exactly what we’ve done. You can hear it in the announcers voice after another single file time trial race results in a kind of fast race with zero drama or intrigue. We’ve set ourselves up for disappointment.

So when we step back and realize that a 4×400 that ran 4:02, a time that my four college distance girls ran a few weeks ago, captured the world and went viral, we should step back and realize: Times don’t catch peoples attention. Drama does. And kudos to those young ladies as the race had amazing drama, comeback, and fight across the board.

There’s a reason that no one can ever tell you what time the Kentucky Derby winner ran this year.  It doesn’t matter. It’s about the drama of the race.

Track and Field has forgotten that.

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    1. Cameron Hardy on May 9, 2016 at 8:38 pm

      I agree, it's too easy for announcers to drop the ball. It takes work to know people's story or to know your sport well enough to announce. Race directors should take great pains to hire some announcers who will do their job 110% just like the athletes do.

    2. JTL in MTL on May 10, 2016 at 7:35 pm

      I read this and I am all excited about what could be! But then I think, well, short track speed skating is ALL about the head to head racing and that's not a sport that's particularly popular. Perhaps track has the advantage of being much more accessible and mainstream, not to mention being a year-round sport with indoor, xc and outdoor/road seaason. XC is also pretty much head to head, and that hasn't done much.

      One thing that you didn't mention is the effect the chasing of times has had on the proliferation of PEDs. For sure if it were only about winning races, the PEDs would still be there, but I do think the chase has played a role, in particular the 2h marathon question. No discussion of the 2h marathon is complete without dividing it into how long with/without drugs.

      There's no doubt that track would be more fun and exciting to both watch and take part in with better announcing though. No quibble with that!

    3. Karl M. Rysted on October 25, 2016 at 5:27 pm

      Love this! With all my races in the last 14 years, I’ve only won my age group 3 times and those were 2 years ago when I was in the 50-54 AG. My times were pretty mediocre and not PR’s. The excitement and drama are what I remember, especially in the 5k where I placed in the top 10% overall with over 200 runners.

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