The ethics of cutthroat kicksJune 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.