2012-08-10

For Once, They Get It Right!

In a delightful example of intellectual honesty, Kevin Craft of The Atlantic explains that the level of physical fitness present at the Olympic Games is well beyond the intellectual comprehension of most of the spectators:
This may seem like a somewhat obvious idea—Usain Bolt is more athletic than you!—but it's worth considering. The difference in athletic abilities between sports fans and the athletes they watch is so great that, even if given the chance, the average person could not meaningfully exist on a playing field with elite competitors. If you inserted the average Joe or Jane onto a basketball court or football field with a group of professionals, that person's presence would not even register. If you put an average person in an Olympic speed race like the 100-meter dash—an event where the top performers run at speeds that exceed 26 miles per hour—that person would appear to be running through quicksand. The level of play in professional and Olympic sports is so high that it practically constitutes an entirely different reality from the amateur level, and that has repercussions for our understanding of sports and our feelings towards athletes.
Well put, and I completely agree. Especially when it comes to events that are a question of pure physicality (as opposed to technique), the level of athleticism involved here is so tremendous, so great, that no "normal" human being can meaningfully understand its significance - even if they think they can!

Craft doesn't stop there. He challenges his readers to go home tonight and try to learn what it means to be an Olympic marathon runner:
So when the Olympic marathon rolls around on Saturday morning, grab your tennis shoes, hop on a treadmill, and program it to run at a six-minute-mile pace. That's the easy part. The tricky part will be to see how long you can keep it up. If you're like me, you'll be reprogramming the speed dial at some point before you complete your first mile, and after you've completed three miles, you will opt to watch the rest of the race from the comfort of your couch. Whenever I try to sustain Olympic Marathon type of speed, my lungs start to burn, my legs turn to rubber, and my complexion begins to resemble the colors found on most Valentine's Day cards. I cannot, and probably never will be able to, fathom how a human being can run at that speed for over two and a half hours—though it pleases me to know I could match strides with the world's best distance runners for about four minutes. My best recorded mile time is six minutes and four seconds. Mr. Sato of Japan completed 26.2 miles at around that speed. Even though he finished last at the 2008 Olympics, he is still a superhuman athlete in my mind.

Running is the most elemental sport we have. Its premise is so simple: Run a certain distance in less time than everyone else. And people of all ages can relate to it. Children stage races in schoolyards and cul-de-sacs to determine who is the fastest kid on the block; adults run and jog to stay in shape. Olympic running gives us a sense of who the fastest person of all the blocks around the world is. While the vast majority of us will never be able to experience the speeds achieved by top sprinters, we can run, for at least a short amount time, at the same speed as Olympic marathoners. And when our bodies begin to falter after one mile or five or 10, the truly difficult nature of this sport will mean more to us than ever before. 
 Here-here, Mr. Craft.