Tie goes to the runner

Something happened this week at the USATF Olympic Team Trials that should make us pause and think about our sport, and our attitude towards it. I’m sure most of you have read that Allyson Felix and her training partner, Jeneba Tarmoh, tied for third place in the 100m final. This is a problem because the US can only send three women to the Olympics (if only Canada had this problem, right?). So what to do?

What is interesting to me about this is what it says about sport. Ties, in most professional sports, are a rarity. In hockey, we have a shoot-out to decide contests in the regular season. Hockey borrowed from soccer, which just saw Italy and England play to a 0-0 tie, and move on to penalty kicks, which Italy won. There are no ties in baseball. It’s rare in track and field, but it does happen. In this case, a winner (or at least, a 3rd place finisher) needs to be chosen because of the Olympic team.

In general though, our cultural aversion to ties shows us what sports are all about: winning. Why do we compete? Many reasons, so we say, but the unacceptable nature of the tie suggests we want to divide ourselves into winners and losers. And it’s ok to be a loser, because at least you get some feedback: I’m not as good as that guy, I need to be better. If you win, you can say, hey, I’m better than that guy. A tie is…unsatisfying. There’s a reason the old expression for it was “a sister-kisser.”

The solution to the Felix-Tarmoh affair will be educational as well. While both are under contract to Nike, one, Felix, is the face of Nike in women’s sprinting. It seems hard to believe that Nike will stand by and leave her home from London. She probably won’t stay home, even if she loses the coin-toss/run-off, because she’s a strong candidate in the 200m as well, but make no mistake: the money says she goes in the 100m as well.

This is a good reminder, as was the business about athlete’s personal sponsors back in the fall (among other things, Lauren Fleshman was not allowed to have a tattoo of her Picky Bars brand on her arm for the NYC marathon, because apparently other interests had paid to keep that space free of competition), about what makes our sport go around. Watch Without Limits, or read “Men of Oregon” and you’ll hear about how the athlete vanquished the evil amateur system, and were finally rewarded for all their hard work. But consider the current situation: are athletes now not as restricted as they were then? Instead of an AAU bureaucrat dictating who races where, corporate sponsors lay out the competitive schedule for the athletes. Sure, they work in conjunction with the coach and agent, but if you want to get paid, you run where Nike or Adidas tells you to run.

Maybe this is fine if you are making six-figures or more. I am not saying it is good or bad. But as we come up to the Olympics, narratives of hard work and natural talent (unironically placed side-by-side) will fill the airwaves. Consider whose stories we do hear, though, and what they are wearing. At the highest level, organized sport is not a contest of will or skill, it is a giant platform for advertising. Hey: this is ok, after all, what isn’t these days?

But for true amateurs, those whose only reward really is a PB and a slap on the back, it is important to have the right perspective on why you do your sport. A recent blog post from triathlete and mom Danelle Kabush drives this point home. The key part of this blog is the quote from André Agassi:

“I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”

Winning doesn’t change you. So you should have a back-up plan. A solid reason. Even if you come out of nowhere and win the Olympic Trials this weekend, and you make the Olympic standard, too, if you do not want to be set adrift in a deceptive world where money, not athletic prowess, rules the day, make sure you know why you’re there. Enjoy it, but know: Everyone loves a winner, and everyone’s been a loser at some point, but what no one wants is a tie.