Sportsmanship vs showmanship

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I think this is a funny gif as it represents the impression many in the track and field world have of our officials: curmudgeonly, picky, awkward. It’s true that there are many officials that rub people the wrong way. There are also many who do a great job keeping the meets going and making sure the athletes have the best opportunity to perform. But it’s always the bad apples who stick out.

It seems to me most of us consider them a necessary evil, and we deal with it the best we can. But when we’re having a conversation about how to better market our sport, the place of officials needs to be discussed. If you recall, most would-be track fans are looking for some excitement, some personality, some way to connect with the athletes on the track. It’s rare that we get a Steve Prefontaine or even a Gabe Jennings (remember him?) who does more than just race: he makes the fans jump out of their seats.

Unfortunately, when a fire does start to burn, track and field officials are there to throw a wet blanket on it. Take the CIS championships this weekend: the Western Mustang men’s 4x800m team won the event, on an emphatic kick from anchorman Scott Leitch. Let’s back up a bit and go through the history here. The race was a battle between Western (and Leitch) and Guelph and their top half-miler, Anthony Romaniw. Romaniw is someone who fans might pay to see race. His coach, the normally reserved Dave Scott-Thomas, described “Romo” as “an artist on the track.” He also referred to the runner’s in-competition antics in this tweet:

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Others have less charitably referred to Romaniw as a “hot dog” likely due to his tendency to give the crowd a little show at the end of races. Whether you agree with it or not, Romo’s races are appointment viewing. At the OUA championships, he routinely jogged down the finishing straight, looking around for his competition, with plenty of room to spare. In the 4×800, Guelph won a decisive victory, with Western coming 3rd. Romaniw also won the 1000m and 600m, easily, ahead of Leitch (and everyone else) in both cases. In the CIS 1000m, Romaniw eased off and let his teammate Steve Holmes win, presumably because Holmes will be graduating this spring, and his buddy wanted him to go out on top. For a change of pace, in the 600m, Romaniw sat in the pack until the final 150m, then exploded around 5 guys, chased down Leitch in the stretch, and won. The guy is fast, interesting, and exciting to watch.

So back to the CIS championships 4×800, and Leitch, who with a blistering last lap, looked like he had finally gotten the better of his Gryphon rival. Romaniw, again, shut it down in the final straightaway, with room to spare between himself and 3rd place. It looked like he had gone too early, taking the lead in the final lap, being challenged unnecessarily by a lapped runner from York. So all things considered, it looked like a good rivalry match-up, something that potential fans could anticipate, perhaps going into the summer: the “cocky” Romaniw and the headband-wearing Leitch. Cool.

But, shortly after the race, the results were updated to indicate that Western had been DQed under rule 125.5, which is essentially track’s “unsportsmanlike conduct” rule. Turns out Leitch had “spiked” the baton as a celebratory gesture and some officials didn’t like it, so they laid down the law. As with Romaniw’s alledged “hot dogging” you can decide for yourself if you like that sort of thing or not, I suppose. But if we are going to say, on the one hand, that we want more personality in the sport, more excitement, and more drama, then we can’t have officials who essentially outlaw any such thing.

Given Romaniw’s seeming affinity for grand gestures, I’d like to see him give his 4x800m gold medal (of course Guelph moved up to the top of the podium) to Leitch. There’s precedent for this: Reid Coolsaet did the same in the Canada Games in 2001, after Daniel Blouin finished 3rd, but was disqualified for mooning the crowd after his race. The CIS 4×800 had all the elements people want in a track race: it was an exciting, close race, with some great personalities involved. Western won that round of what is sure to be a great on-going battle. It seems a shame that the final result doesn’t reflect the true outcome. All because of an official.