The Glory of finishing Second

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No analogy captures better the essence of running than that of the professional musician: a person who plays and plays in a restless search for the perfect performance. It’s not just the time that counts or the position in the race but the joy of the activity itself. This, I’ve argue before, is part of the difference between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, the latter was content to decline, just loving to race competitively, whereas Coe was haunted by the shame that he might race and not win. The exaggerated urge to come first is the sporting equivalent of a society convulsed by Thatcherite dogma. In the wrong circumstances, a running victory can be a profoundly destructive experience. The relentless urge to win is a needless and self-destructive expression of unease with self.

This notion of the futility of winning is delicately illustrated by the recent story Iván Fernández Anaya, a Basque athlete who finished second in a cross country race six weeks ago at Burlada in Northern Spain. Abel Mutai, who came third in the 3000 metre steeplechase at the London Olympics, was just approaching the line. As he left the track, to cover the last few metres, which were run on grass, Mutai clearly believed that he had already crossed the finishing line. He checked his watch, and slowed down almost to walking pace.

Anaya, who was about ten metres behind, caught up with Mutai, and (as you can see in the above video clip at about 30 seconds in), ushered him towards the line, pointing him in the direction of the actual finish. The two athletes were close enough so that Anaya could have sprinted past and won – but chose not to. “[Mutai] was the rightful winner”, Anaya said afterwards, “He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed.”

I recall a cross country race in my teens where I caught another runner at the final water jump. Bundling him up, I dragged him with me across the line. I was a track athlete and trained the whole year; he by contrast was someone who had relied on sheer strength and determination to carry him round. He had run a fantastic race; me a mediocre one. I didn’t deserve to finish ahead of him, and 20 years later am still glad that we crossed the line together.

Anyone who has run more than a couple of dozen races will have faced something like this choice.

Hat tip to Ben Hiller and Jeff Jackson

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