Swifter, Higher, Stronger ... Prettier?

Just for kicks, imagine the following: you’re charging through the final mile of a 10K, on pace to set a personal record or win an age group award, and giving it every ounce of effort you have.

The situation grows more difficult with every step - legs screaming, lungs burning, heart pounding like a jackhammer – but you somehow muster the courage and determination to stay on pace all the way to the finish. Finally you cross the line and almost keel over from sheer exhaustion, filled with satisfaction and pride from a maximal effort and a long-awaited goal.

Shortly thereafter, you’re approached by a race official, where the following exchange begins …

Official: Nice job – it looks like you might win an age group award. Of course, your official result is pending final review.

You: Review? What kind of review?

Official: By the judges, obviously. They deduct or add seconds to your time based on style. Like the way you were really grunting during that last mile – that might cost you about 15 seconds.

You: Seriously?

Official: Uh-huh. Also, your arm swing looked kind of funny throughout the race – that’s probably another 10-second penalty. And you had this strange grimace on your face towards the end – maybe another 5 or 10 seconds for that. Honestly, you weren’t as graceful as the other runners, and some of them really impressed the judges out there.

You: But this was my fastest time ever - I set a PR!

Official: Yeah … about that. By my calculations, your clock time was 39:35, and factoring in style points, your official time will probably be about 40:10 or so. Congrats on almost breaking 40 minutes! Unfortunately, two guys behind you earned time deductions, so they passed you in the age group standings. Something to work on for next time, maybe.

You: This is insane.

And you’d be justified in thinking so. Nevertheless, every four years we embrace and celebrate a whole collection of sports that rely on just such a premise to separate winners from losers. Tomorrow evening, the craziness begins all over again; that’s right … we’re talking about the Olympics.

Before you get the wrong idea, we’ll say very clearly that we both LOVE watching the Olympics. We love the ideals they embody: pursuit of the highest levels of human performance, uniting people from all corners of the globe, who set political and religious and cultural differences aside in the name of brotherhood through competition.

It’s just that last part – the “competition” thing – that rubs us the wrong way sometimes. In our book, sporting competition consists of either 1) defeating someone face to face, or 2) outperforming everybody on the same field at the same time. It doesn’t include who looks the prettiest, who puts the most flair into their routine, or who benefitted from better course conditions earlier in the day.

The Summer Olympics, particularly gymnastics, feature an element of this capriciousness, but the Winter Games are the stage when such absurdity truly shines. However, we realize that most of the events don’t lend themselves to side-by-side competition, and that won’t stop us from watching and appreciating the grand spectacle that every Olympiad offers.

But deep inside, part of us will be wishing for an eight-lane luge track, full-contact figure skating (have them all do their routines at the same time; last one standing wins), or a simultaneous downhill ski event – anything where we don’t need judges to tell us who the winners are.

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