Playing by the Rules
by Laurel Park, Oct. 16, 2004
Playing by the Rules
Several months ago I was a spectator at a fairly competitive road race. As the race unfolded, I realized that one of the lead women was being paced by her boyfriend. It was an out-and-back course and I was at about the mile mark so I saw them coming and going. Unless he did some bizarre surging in the middle, I have to assume that the boyfriend played escort through the entire event. I'm familiar with both of these folks so I know he can run a lot faster than he did that day. Obviously, he was pacing his sweetie. This was a prize money race and while the woman did not win, she did place high enough to pick up a small amount of cash. Whether the presence of her boyfriend was a factor in her performance is anyone's guess. What is not anyone's guess is the fact that according to USATF rules, pacing is illegal. As this race was a USATF sanctioned event, had any of the other female runners protested, this woman probably would have been disqualified.
I found myself oddly disappointed and a little frustrated by this incident. I don't know this woman personally but I do know that she has participated in a number of fairly prestigious regional events and really ought to know better. Certainly her boyfriend, a former elite athlete, must be aware of the rule. And aside from the technical perspective, I was even more upset about the lack of good sportsmanship reflected in their actions. It was an insult to the other participants - or at least that's how I saw it. To be honest, the time differential to the woman in front of her was so large that her boyfriend's "assistance" probably had no impact whatsoever on the final outcome. Aside from a couple of hushed comments among other spectators (apparently I was not the only one who noticed this), no one spoke up publicly and she trotted to the awards stage to receive her prize along with everyone else.
The incident nagged at my conscience for several weeks. Not for the first time, I found myself questioning the value of rules and whether they should be enforced simply because they exist or whether other factors should be taken into account. On the one hand, the boyfriend's presence almost certainly did not influence the order of finish. The woman would have needed roller blades, not a running partner, to move up in the results. On the other hand, what she did was illegal and had she been disqualified, some other deserving runner - one who was likely playing by the rules - would have placed in the money. Would it have made any difference if the woman had been close enough to win, or had used her time from the race to qualify for a national team? Lots of marathoners openly enlist the assistance of friends when attempting to qualify for Boston. Yet according to USATF rules, if any of those friends are either 1) not themselves entered in the race, or 2) not of the same sex as the runner, then the assistance is illegal and the runner should be disqualified. But since these folks rarely finish in the money (or the top 100, for that matter), it doesn't seem quite so onerous. On the contrary, there is something inspiring about watching them strive to achieve their goals, and striking them down for such a petty offense seems downright callous. Yet compare that with the outcry following the 2001 Free Press Marathon when it was revealed that runners from the Hanson's Olympic Development Team had been entered in the half-marathon relay expressly for the purpose of pacing teammate and eventual second-place marathon finisher Chris Wehrman. While Chris's time would not have earned him any world record bonuses, had the Olympic Trials qualifying "window" been open, he would have satisfied the "A" level standard. He also would have faced the very real prospect having his time, and the times of any other American qualifiers in the pack with him, nullified by USATF because of the pacing. Would it have been any more or less "right" to disqualify Chris but not mid-packer Joe, who had three guys from his running club jump in and accompany him through miles 10-25 in his quest for a Boston qualifier?
We've all been told since childhood that rules exist for a reason. In terms of running, ostensibly they provide a level playing field and ensure that no one benefits from having an unfair advantage. Most rules make at least a little sense but others seem to be the product of someone's creative imagination. Few people would argue with bans on performance-enhancing drugs and other forms of overt cheating. But some of the rules seem downright silly. The "uniform rule" - which thankfully appears to have been relaxed since my college days - never made any sense to me. Every athlete on a team had to wear the same style uniform or the team risked disqualification. As long as the uniforms were all school issue, I could never see why it would it would matter if Linda wanted to wear briefs but Dawn wanted to wear shorts and Anne wanted to wear cropped tights. When I was in high school, girls were not allowed to wear metal barrettes during the cross-country state meet. I guess MHSAA officials were concerned that the sun would reflect off a wayward hair clip and blind some poor competitor (always a concern in Michigan in November). One of my favorite examples of bizarre rule enforcement involves my husband's college track team. Bucknell lost the 1983 East Coast Conference outdoor track championship when all four of its 5000 meter runners were disqualified because the rest of the team had engaged in "organized encouragement", consisting primarily of loud cheers and staccato applause during the event. The coach of a competing school insisted that this cheering gave Bucknell an unfair advantage and apparently meet officials agreed. Scars from that incident still run deep among some Bucknell alumni.
I wonder what I would have done if I had been the runner who finished behind the paced woman at that race. Would it have been worth the repercussions and potential negativity ("sore loser!") just to make sure that the rule was enforced? While I doubt it was the case in this instance, I suspect that most rule violations stem from ignorance. In theory, the onus of responsibility for knowing the rules rests with the athlete (take note, Suzy Favor-Hamilton). By entering a USATF sanctioned event, you agree to abide by the rules set forth by USATF. Races that draw a large number of national- or world-class athletes usually address the issue by distributing a printed list of rules or by requiring a pre-race "technical meeting" for athletes and coaches in which the rules are reviewed. Most college coaches similarly ensure that their athletes are aware of NCAA rules (eligibility and performance). But for the runner who didn't compete in college and now suddenly finds himself competing with the elites, that "formal" education is often lacking.
I'm willing to grant the benefit of the doubt some of the time, but I also try to enlighten my fellow competitors when appropriate (and likewise appreciate being enlightened myself). There is a difference between placing blame and educating someone, and I always strive for the latter. In the spirit of fair competition and good sportsmanship, playing by the rules is the least we can do.