The story of ‘Rethinking track and field’

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Guest post by Ian Stone

In 2002, an Italian Publishing company called SEP Editrice posthumously published Professor Alphonse Juilland’s book  Rethinking track and field; The future of the world’s oldest sport. One of the more striking things about it; aside from it having a foreword written by then newly-installed President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Lamine Diack, was that it was a statistics work written with the verve of a true athletics fan who had participated in the sport for many years, and indeed achieved World records in the sport as a veteran athlete. Juilland’s book is an oddity because it advances an egalitarian basis for the future of athletic competition which ostensibly has a socialist flavour to it. Yet Julliand was a mass of contradictions. According to his memorial resolution from Stanford University, he did not believe in science or reason, yet his interest in statistics suggests that he had at least a fascination with concrete facts.

Julliand was not a physiologist, or a statistician, although his work on athletics points to an appreciable grasp of both. An introduction to his personal archive in the Stanford University Department of Special Collections and University Archives provides a neat summary of his life and work. He was born in 1922 in Bucharest, where he took his first degree in the 1940s, obtaining a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1951.He taught language, literature, linguistics and philosophy in France, Canada and the US, teaching at Washington, Pennsylvania , Columbia, and taught at Stanford from 1961-2000, where he died in his room on campus. He is regarded as ‘an international pioneer in his studies of the application of structural  methods in historical linguistics and in linguistic structural theory, gaining acclaim as one of the first linguists to analyse language using quantitative methods using computers.’ He wrote the first structuralist history of French pronunciation and the first inverse dictionary of the French language.

The story of how Julliand became an athlete himself is related by Julliand’s long term friend and the eventual editor of Rethinking track and field, William D. Gairdner in the Editor’s foreword to Rethinking. When Gairdner was a 24 year old runner, he visited the Stanford University track where the then forty-something Professor was being timed by his wife training for middle distance. The Professor and Gairdner became friends, and one day Juilland revealed one of his great ambitions was to run a sub-six minute mile. A deal was struck; the Professor would school Gairdner in academia in exchange for a rigorous training regime that would see the aspirant veteran athlete achieve his dream. It worked; the Professor agreed to quit cigarettes, dropped about 35 pounds and within a year had got down to an impressive 5:59.8.

However, Juilland had not yet found his calling athletics-wise. By chance, when ‘slogging through a lamentable two-mile race’ he found himself to be a talented sprinter. A member of his training group had been instructed to go on the track and encourage him across the line, and the prof had used the intervention as competition to the extent where Juilland ‘came flying down the final straightaway at a very high speed, with impeccable form, having left the struggling youngster-and all the spectators-in a state of utter disbelief’. Juilland began to call Gairdner ‘Frankenstein’ and himself ‘the monster’. His sprint times, from the off, were extraordinary for an athlete of any age-and he began winning masters races in earnest. He ran 10.6 for 100 yards at age 49, and the 200m in 23.6 and 400m in 56.3 the same year:

‘…his records stood for decades and he would periodically return to training, lose the weight he had gained all over again, and display his amazing talent. I have a photo of him age 64 in my study. He is grinning in his beguiling way, pipe in mouth, after winning a masters 200m race in 26.46’.

Rethinking track and field itself has numerous innovative suggestions, drawn from his experiences as a fan and participant in athletics, on how the sport might be improved. The first chapter, for instance, looks on how old events might be improved. A brace of suggestions are made on how to improve the jumping events, such as holding boardless long and triple jumps, where the distance would be measured from wherever the take-off point was rather than from behind a board, the argument being that the use of boards has led to some enormous fouls being nullified, when there was nothing intrinsically wrong with these jumps. Indeed, he cites at length the case of Carl Lewis’ legendary foul jump at Indianapolis in 1982, which some observers felt was over 30’ (9.14m), yet no mark was found in the board plasticene (the determining factor in issuing a foul jump) leading to it being rendered null and void. This jump would have easily been a world record had Julliand’s suggestion been in effect. The use of laser beams to measure the exact height cleared in the high jump and pole vault is also suggested, as sometimes athletes will clear the bar by as much as three or four inches with their best jump, or up to around a foot in the pole vault. Laser technology could also be employed as a way of determining false starts, it is suggested, rather than having the arbitrary rule in place that the athlete is penalised if they move faster than 0.1 after the gun has sounded.

In the same chapter, Julliand asserts that the best ever instrinsic high jump, relative to the efficacy of dynamic shifting of ‘payload’ i.e. weight is actually not that of Javier Sotomayor, world record holder with 2.45m, but Werner Gunthor, the 130kg world class shot putter, with an impressive 2.00m, prompting the strange thought that Gunthor is a world record holder, but not at his ‘best’ event! In (chapter 3, Juilland develops this theme. The chapter is entitled ‘Physical attributes, performance, and the democracy of sport.’ In a section entitled ‘should flyweights throw against the heavyweights?’ Julliand draws on the example of Paralympic sport, where athletes with similar physical attributes are pitted against each other, so as to equalise the event and create a ‘level playing field’. Conversely, in the Shot Putt events, it is true to say that some athletes are advantaged by their size-height creates greater leverage, and weight exacts more propulsive force behind the Shot. On the basis of factoring in information from a huge selection of athletes profiles, Julliand discovers that Dan O’Brien, the former world record holder at the decathlon, can be regarded as pound-for-pound the greatest ever Shot putter.

An intriguing set of juxtapositions are proffered as to possible new athletics events- eg high throwing, long vaulting. ’Change areas’ in relays are suggested as dispensable and a 3 leg 100m relay is proposed, where each athlete would run 133.33m. A 500m oval track is proposed, as is the idea of running clockwise round the track-and having separate records for anti-clockwise and clockwise runs. Julliand also devises a complex system of determining ‘the ten best  (i.e. World)record holders ever, whether female or male’ incorporating factors such as the total percentage by which they improved the marks they broke, and the total duration of their records. On this basis Bob Beamon’s incredible 8.90m Long Jump comes out on top, but there are 4 women in the top ten.

Juilland’s interrogation of performances across time (the disadvantages of cinder tracks and a time formula for measuring their effects are also addressed) and across genders gives us a truer picture of extraordinary performances, one where they can be appreciated fully on their own merit. Some of his ideas on how to develop athletics extend this possibility. His athletics odyssey well into old age-he was still competing when he died aged 77-are also a source of inspiration. Yet Juilland’s conservative politics remain a source of frustration, and we see that in the introduction of Rethinking entitled ‘Track and field on trial: an acrimonious debate with myself’ he simultaneously advocates developments in track and field for the enrichment of the spectator and to preserve [Track and Field’s] ‘market share’.

The spectre of athletics as a highly monetised event removes it from its constituency – namely those who want to participate for the pure fun of it. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of pleasure to be had from watching the best athletes compete. But this experirence is becoming rare. Many of the athletics finals were unaffordable for most people at the 2012 Olympic Games. Many fans experienced the disappointment of not being able to go because corporate sponsors had taken seats but, as the TV cameras then revealed, didn’t take them up. There were a tiny amount of free events-the Marathon was one; but those who paid extra were permitted to see video screens showing the parts of the race it was not possible to see up close i.e. most of it. Also, of course, money dictated that the Games had to be in a certain place; much to the annoyance of several thousand eastenders who had to move as a result.

The Conservative Government meanwhile continue to slash school sports budgets for state schools, and thereby limit the majority of people’s ability to participate in sport. The success of the Paralympics is being used as an exemplar to show people being able to overcome physical adversity. Yet people are being refused benefits when they are seriously ill, or in some cases, dying. More than a debt reduction exercise, the austerity drive is the manifestation of an intolerance of the poor, the sick and disabled. Writing on athletics has to be politically conscious of this, and to be subtly aware of the ways in which oppositions of physical strength/weakness were artificially posed by the far right in the past, and will posit again if they are given the chance. Economic Conservatism is a gift for racist, sexist and anti-disabled groups such as the BNP and EDL as it encourages their survivalist mentality and adds to the ranks of the alienated and disenfranchised. Juilland’s writings are imaginative and contentious. It is just incredibly disappointing that he ultimately falls back into an economic conservatism that negates his suggestions as nothing more than considerations for the advancement of the athletics ‘market’. Ultimately Juilland tries to break out of paradigms only to find that for all his imagination, he cannot conceive of a society outside Capitalism, the all–encompassing paradigm that negates our dreams the moment they are born.

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