SI Vault
Ah, Sweet Mystery
Michael Farber
September 23, 1996
Because ambiguity is good for the soul, some questions in sports are best left unanswered
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 23, 1996

Ah, Sweet Mystery

Because ambiguity is good for the soul, some questions in sports are best left unanswered

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

A Proposed match race between Olympic 100-meter champion Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson, who won the 200 and the 400 in Atlanta, appears dead on the track (at least for 1996), if not in the pages of The Globe and Mail of Toronto. The newspaper, which proclaims itself Canada's national daily, printed a letter last month from a Vancouver political scientist who was insensitive enough to point out that Johnson, an American, averaged 37.267 kilometers per hour in his world-record 200 in Atlanta while Bailey, a Canadian home brew, averaged a mere 36.585 in his world-record effort. World's Fastest Man? Case closed.

But many respondents were as swift as sprinters in huffily noting that the opening 10 meters—the slowest segment of virtually any race—consumed 10% of Bailey's event but only 5% of Johnson's 200. Canadians with pocket calculators joined a furious debate over spurious numbers, a newsprint dialogue that was more compelling than any made-for-TV match race could possibly be.

The proposed 150-meter sprint-off is a loopy idea, a phony race over a bastard distance that would prove nothing. Bailey and Johnson ran their best times on their biggest days, extending the threshold of human possibility in their respective specialties. They certainly need no coda, especially a contrivance such as a match race. There are no easy answers to the question of who is faster—the American apple or the Canadian orange—although The Globe and Mail stumbled onto the most sensible solution: Let people argue. My letter writer can beat your letter writer, best-of-three.

Sports isn't rocket science, though if the present trend continues, it soon will be. There is almost nothing in our athletic toy chest that nowadays isn't measured, quantified or overly explained. The simple pleasures of the 1950s argument over who was the best centerfielder in New York—Willie, Mickey or the Duke—couldn't exist now, at least not without computer printouts. Knowledge is good (Faber College's motto), but are we really better off when the magician tells us how he pulls off that business with the saw and the assistant?

The unexamined life might not be worth living, but here's one vote for a little more ambiguity. If we are drawn to sports by its sense of order in a gold-silver-bronze universe, it's the gray, open-ended areas that engender the passion. Bonds or Griffey Jr.? Elway or Marino? Gretzky or Lemieux? Bailey or Johnson? Let's argue. For two weeks every year we should declare a holiday from sports facts, beating the sabermetricians into plowshares and trusting instead the inconclusive evidence of our eyes and our instincts and our loyalties.

The NCAA seems happy enough to swap tradition for certitude as it revamps the bowl system in its lurch toward crowning a national college football champion. Of course there is nothing wrong with tournaments—they serve the NCAA well in other sports—but there was also nothing wrong with the bowls, charming anachronisms that guaranteed some rousing intersectional matchups and a chance to lull away a New Year's Day hangover. If every few years the bowls offered No. 1 versus No. 2 in a Game of the Century, it was a treat. If every few years the student body at unbeaten Penn State whipped itself into a froth because a President or a panel of sportswriters said that another school had the best team, it enlivened the debate.

We analyze. We compute. We pronounce. The NBA crowns a champion three-point shooter at its All-Star Game weekend because it thinks we must know who has the deadliest shot. The NHL times its skaters in races around the rink during its All-Star Game festivities because it thinks we have to know who is the swiftest. The U.S. Tennis Association posts the speed of every serve on the main court during the U.S. Open because it thinks we must know who hits the ball the hardest.

Does it matter? Has anyone devised a test to tell us who is the best three-point shooter with a hand in his face and 1.2 seconds on the clock in a two-point game? Is it important to know which Russian is the fastest skater if he shoots wildly while streaking down the wing in overtime of a Stanley Cup playoff game? What difference does it make that Mark Philippoussis has a 137-mph serve when Pete Sampras wins the tournament on guts?

Sports can be painted by numbers, but games are also a laboratory of human behavior. Of courage. Of sacrifice. Of leadership. If you could pick one man to start Game 7 of the World Series, who would it be? To take the last-second shot over Scottie Pippen in June? To sink a 12-foot putt on 18 to win the U.S. Open? Can we discuss how many California Angels can dance on the head of a pin without being told their record in day games against other teams in the American League West?

My guess is that Michael Johnson is faster than Donovan Bailey. Or maybe not. I'm open to debate. But remember, I know some awfully tough letter writers.