Winter Olympics (And The Beauty Of Head-To-Head Competition)

The drawbacks of sports based on time trials and judging.

By on February 13, 2014 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: It’s an honor to introduce iRunFar’s newest columnist, perhaps the only person who needs no introduction at all. Enjoy the ruminations of John Medinger, the former publisher of UltraRunning magazine and a long, long, longtime member of the ultrarunning community. In his Aloha, TJ column, “Tropical John” will be writing the occasion piece about, well, whatever he wants, and perhaps a little bit about the evolution of trail and ultrarunning through time.]

Aloha, TJI’m having a hard time getting excited about the Winter Olympics. Here’s why:

Judges. And time trials.

But especially judges.

The Winter Olympics, mostly, is a series of events that are either time trials–downhill skiing, or luge–or an event where the winner is determined by a panel of judges.

Most of these events are athletic and exciting (sorry, can’t get anywhere near putting either of those words together with the activity of curling) to watch. But even the recklessness of the downhill grows a bit tiresome after watching the 14th straight skier ski down the exact same course, with only the intermediate splits thrown up on the screen to educate us on how he is doing. For drama, time trials pale when compared to almost any head-to-head competition. To wit: Dario Colgona’s thrilling 30k skiathlon win. (Maybe somebody will take note of the excitement of the long-distance cross-country skiing and create a similar event for the Summer Games. You know, folks running a long distance over demanding terrain, something like that.)

Even worse are the myriad events–some of them seemingly invented last month–where judges determine the winner. I’m not entirely convinced that even the expert judges can tell who performed the best.

Let’s assume that figure skating is as competitive at the Olympic level as a typical running event. (Okay, there are a lot more runners in the world than figure skaters, but roll with me on this.) Consider the men’s 1500-meter final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which was won by Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria in 3:34.03. The seventh place runner in that race was Silas Kiplagat of Kenya in 3:36.19, almost exactly 1% slower. Now suppose, like in figure skating, we asked the top seven runners to run 1500 meters, in sequence, one runner at a time. And we, the judges, watched them each run solo for three and a half minutes (about the length of a typical figure skating routine). And then, after each run, without benefit of instant replay or a stopwatch, we voted on who was the fastest runner. Could we tell that Makhloufi was 1% faster than Kiplagat and award him the gold? I very seriously doubt it. But that’s what we are asking the figure skating judges to do.

Yes, figure skating is athletic and graceful and fun to watch. But so, too, is the Joffrey Ballet–and we don’t award gold medals for that.

So, yeah, I’m sure to watch at least a little–I’m hardly impervious to popular culture. But I won’t get fully engaged until we get back to the purity and simplicity of “Citius, Altius, and Fortius”–higher, faster, stronger. The Olympic motto for the Winter Games should be something more like, “Oooh, another low score from the Latvian judge.”

 Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about the judging of competitions instead of using objective markers like what we find in the measurement of running performances?
  • Do you think the Olympics should only contain events that can be judged objectively? Do you think head-to-head competition should be another part of Olympic competitions?
  • Is running’s means of measuring performance–the timing of a performance from its start to its finish–as close to objective and error-free as we can get?
  • Do you want cross-country running back in the Olympics? What about skimo?
John Medinger
John Medinger is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.