The ethics of cutthroat kicks

June 25, 2006

With 200 meters to go, I’ve basically given up on passing Keith. He looks fresh, as if he hasn’t been racing all-out up to this point, and I have a mediocre kick under even the best of circumstances. This is not the best of circumstances. We’re barreling down a sidewalk in Golden Gardens Park, dodging dozens of beachgoers oblivious to our duel, and I don’t even know where the finish line is. Then, suddenly, a gift: the course veers right, Keith goes straight, and all that’s between me and the finish is 80 meters of soft grass. I start to accelerate…. But is it right to take advantage of a competitor’s mistake at an admittedly confusing intersection?

Before you answer, here’s a bit more context. Keith and I were the anchor legs of our respective teams at the 100-mile Mountains to Sound Relay. With RunningShoes.com having already laced up a 33-minute victory, the question remaining was whether the Seattle Running Company (represented by yours truly) could overtake Callen Construction. Callen began the final 6-mile running leg in 2nd place, about 5 minutes ahead of us, despite a 20-minute detour earlier in the day. According to one team member, Callen’s talented road cyclist had beaten the course-marking crew to a checkpoint and went up a long hill that turned out to not be part of the course. (See the Comments for the race director’s version of the story.)

The errant cyclist was on my mind with a half-mile to go as Keith missed a left turn and I drew even with him, foreshadowing the wacky ending described above. This was my first of two opportunities to concede the runner-up spot, recognizing that maybe the construction guys had already been penalized enough for their creative route choices. On the other hand, our mountain biker had gotten a flat tire, and our kayaker was using a vessel vastly inferior to those of the top paddlers. I could even argue that I was not at my best because I had spent the morning working at an understaffed aid station rather than staying out of the sun. All the teams had handicaps to overcome; why assume Callen’s problems were more deserving of sympathy than ours? And what of my teammates’ valiant efforts to bring us this close to a runner-up finish? Would I be justified in deciding on their behalf that we didn’t really deserve to be 2nd? Still, in a setting where competitive juices sometimes boil over, wouldn’t it have been apt to acknowledge in a small way that there is more to sports than annihilating your opponents?

I wasn’t thinking quite this philosophically as I sped toward the finish line. In the heat of the moment, I simply saw an opening and instinctively exploited it. If I had to do it again, though, I’m not sure whether I’d make the same decision. I’d be interested to hear what others think.


  1. "…wouldn't it have been apt to acknowledge in a BIG, repeat BIG, way that there is more to sports than annihilating your opponents?…"

  2. I think you made about the only choice available to you, Greg. It's always disappointing in sports when the outcome is decided by externalities, but in general I don't think there's anything the competitors can do about it. And I say this even though I would argue that the lack of timeliness by the course marking crew, which hurt the construction team so badly, was of a different nature than things like your teams's lack of a good kayak (the latter "handicap" doesn't seem so "external" to the sport). But just as the construction team's handicaps were not their fault, they weren't your fault either. Whether the construction team was wronged (or just had bad luck) is one thing, whether you can or should "fix" things is something else. Is it your duty to try to fix someone else's bad luck (or if it's not your duty is it at least something that it would be "nice" for you to do)? And could you fix it in this case, even if you wanted to (for instance, would the construction team feel patronized if your team won second place and then handed it over to them)?

  3. Yes, there's more to sports than annihilating our opponents. It's called training and hanging out with your buddies on weekends. My opinion? When the gun goes off there's only one place where you should put your thoughts and energy: getting to the finish line first. Does that mean you run past a fellow racer in need of medical attention? Of course not. But as to all the other stuff — equipment, directions, course foul ups — you can only control what you can control. And that's part of racing isn't it? In any event, it sounds like the stage has been set for a good re-match in 2007!

  4. I thought I would bring up the fact that Mark Davies, the biker from your own team, also passed the course setters. Due to his studying the course before the event, he was able to succesfully complete the course without missing a turn. Although certain things are out of your control, you can stack the odds in your favour if you think on your feet and plan ahead.Your teammate had to face a portion of unmarked course as well, but he made it through without the detour. I think this puts the two teams back on even ground.The run leg was really more of a street scramble than an all out race. The course had all sorts of obsticles. All of the runners had to fend for themselves, due to the inability to close the course to pedestrian traffic.YOu should be psyched with the result and psyched that your teammate pulled through in a potentialy uncontrolable situation.By the way, thanks for all of your help at the undermanned aid station. It was definately a sskeleton crew all day long.

  5. I just confirmed with the race producer that nobody got off course, due to the passing of the course setters. I believe that the Callen Construction rider, along with one other rider, missed a turn that was marked with a cone, sign and orange spray chalk. They were working together and had thier heads down. The course volunteer that was posted at the turn did not stop them from going the wrong direction though.

  6. in the 93 state coaches meet at franklin park I was one second back in third place behind zach smith and jamie mcgowen. they went straight when were supposed to cut hard right in front of white stadium. I yelled "wrong way" and they did an about face. I had gained about 4 seconds on them with 3/4 of mile to go. smith ended up walking me down in the final 100m and beating me by .5 of a second. zac said "you would have won if you didn't say anything." I replied, "I wouldn't want to if that's what winning would entail."If someone goes off course and you know they are doing it, the sporting thing to do is let them know.

  7. Ryan, I completely agree with you on that point. When Keith missed the left turn a half-mile out, I did shout ahead to him ("LEFT! LEFT!"). With 100 meters to go, though, neither of us was sure of the course until we both realized at about the same time that he had just gone astray once again.

  8. Hats off!!! to Ryan and Sally: there is more to sports than annihilating your opponent. There is SPORTSMANSHIP 🙂

  9. Just to clarify my previous post, I should emphasize that I agree 100% that if you as a competitor see another runner make a wrong turn, you ought to try and alert them. What I question is whether there's anything you as a competitor can do after the fact to fix things once another competitor has gone off course.

  10. Well said, Jem. "Whether there's anything you as a competitor can do after the fact to fix thing once another competitor has gone off course" is exactly the question I was trying to raise in my original post. The question Ryan brought up, while related, is a much easier one to answer, in my opinion.

  11. i don't think there is much you can do after the fact for reparation. things go wrong during the best planned events and there isn't anything you can do. there will be a race next week and a relay next year in which things can be settled. I miss understood the situation a little bit. there is nothing else you could have done. Letting up is not in the spirit of the whole thing.

  12. Here’s an interesting variation on this dilemma, just noticed by Jem: http://elpais.com/elpais/2012/12/19/inenglish/1355928581_856388.html

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