Andrea Seccafien is a Canadian 5,000m runner and Olympian. She is the latest addition to Canadian Running‘s blog roll. Follow her thoughts on the elite racing scene here.
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Most people think watching track races is boring– unless of course it’s the men’s 100m final at the Olympics…
You may even be one of those people. Hopefully though, I can change your mind. Track actually IS an interesting spectator sport. Not only is it easy to understand and follow (the person who reaches the finish line first gets the glory. Easy.), but there’s also rivalry narratives, underdogs and upsets, and the opportunity to see some amazing feats of human fitness and skill.
The Opportunity to Surprise and Delight
Professional track, I feel, is especially entertaining because fans get a chance to see an athlete run a distance faster than those who came before them. These rare chances we get to see a world record go down are some of the most surprising moments in sport. Think about it. So many factors have to come together to make that moment happen: impeccable fitness, raw talent, near perfect race conditions and of course, the fearlessness required to even make the attempt.
The men’s 800 at the 2012 Olympics is, in my mind, one of the greatest races of all time for this reason. Championship racing lacks “rabbits” to set the pace so often seen in Diamond League and other big-name meets, but David Rudisha of Kenya didn’t let that stop him from breaking the world record in one of the gutsiest, charge-from-the-front races I’ve ever seen. Missed it? I’ve included the video below so you can see what I mean.
The great thing about an individual sport is the longstanding rivalries that develop as well as athletes’ personal backstories. One of my favourite rivalries in track is between American 1,500m runners Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson. Rowbury has run faster, but Simpson has more international medals. These women are consistently at the top of the United States, and while they are friendly to one another, you can tell that when the gun goes off, neither of them can stand to be beat. Every time they lace up together there’s potential for dramatics if you take a side.
These women battle it out at US Championships, Diamond League and international finals, but this race at the Zurich Diamond League is just one of the many epic battles that these two have had. Once you figure out the backstories of these athletes, watching track becomes so much more addictive.
People often criticize tactical, or “sit and kick”, races, but if you learn to appreciate what’s actually happening, they can be wildly entertaining especially considering that they open the race up to have favourites beaten and others rise to the top. Take the men’s 1,500m in Rio. The field in that race was absolutely stacked, and I think most people would have picked Asbel Kiprop, a Kenyan who has run a mind boggling 3:26.69 and the third fastest time ever for 1,500m, for the win. But Matt Centrowitz went to the front and ran incredibly slow for the majority of the race. Playing mind games like that makes personal bests irrelevant and being tactically smart becomes far more important. Quite simply, it’s fun to watch these athletes outsmart each other as you try to read what’s on their mind.
This year, pick some runners to follow. The World Championships will be taking place in London in August, but before then, athletes will be chasing time standards and trying to win their National Championship. With a new season comes new narratives, more world record attempts and unpredictable outcomes.