November 2006
WHICH FOUR PERFORMANCES most captured your attention in the now-completed season?

For me, I’d have to say, in chronological order it was X-Man’s 19.63, Tyson Gay’s 19.68, Sanya Richards’ 48.70 and Wallace Spearmon’s 19.65. The last three of those are all covered in this issue.

There’s a bond among all those times that’s not immediately obvious, because results never make any mention of it. And that was the lanes out of which each of those superstars ran. Carter was in 8, Richards was in 7 and the Arkalums were in 6.

It’s rare to find runners of their caliber running that far outside. If it’s a meet such as the WC/OG, IAAF seeding rules will put the fastest qualifiers into the “preferred” lanes—3-4-5-6. And when it comes to the major invitational meetings, athletes with their kind of pedigree have enough clout to ask for the lane of their choice, which leads to a heavy preponderance of 3-4-5.

At this point, some history: until ’85, the IAAF still operated under quaint 19th-century ideas of fairness, which dictated that lane draws should always be completely random. The NCAA—being light years ahead of the internationals—had long recognized that people should be rewarded for performing well in prelims. Heat winners got the middle lanes, 2nd placers went around them, etc. When the  IAAF modernized it adopted its current system, which splits an 8-lane track in two, with the top four seeds put into a random draw for 3-4-5-6 and the bottom four randomly in 1-2-7-8.

That leads me to two pointed questions:

•Why should there be any random aspect to the draw in any race?

•In a sprint around a curve or two (200 or 400) why is the middle of the track given preferential status when it’s clear that the farther out you go the easier the bend is, thus leading to the possibility of a faster time with the same expression of effort?

In response to the first query it strikes me that running well in preliminary rounds (just as those jumping/ throwing well in the first half of a field final will) should lead to a defined order of running. No half-and-half grouping.

In answer to the second, not only would I question why the middle is given preference at the WC/OG, I would also get radical and suggest that each race is different and the athletes should be given their choice (choice?! omigods the peasants are storming the castle!), just as they get in invitationals.

Typically, star sprinters have not chosen outside lanes in the invitationals because they want to be able to see their rivals (I always thought this mind-set cost Michael Johnson a few World Records in the ’90s; his 19.32/43.18 came from 3 & 5). But perhaps the results of this summer will change some minds. “I like  running in the outside lane because I’m big and I’m a fighter,” said the X-Man after his lane-8 heroics. Spearmon was originally in 4 in Korea but switched to 6 later on.

I can see 10 good minutes of TV coming out of an Olympic 200 final’s seeding meeting, run just like a pro draft. Top-rated runner A is concerned with being able to see everybody so he takes 8, then seed B hates the curve so he takes 7…

I want to see the athletes with the chance to maximize their potential, and inner lanes just don’t do that. Of course, the truly radical solution is to get rid of the curves, but that’s a bit of fantasy for another column.