O’Boyle: 100-meter dash takes luck out of the equation
Daniel O'Boyle | Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Editor’s Note: This week, the Sports Authority columnists answer the question, “In which competition is it most difficult to win a championship?”
There’s not really one definition for difficulty of winning a sports championship. The NBA’s hard to win if you can’t get a generational talent on your roster. A college football team can’t afford to slip up at any point in the season. Even the best college basketball team in the country can easily be upset in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s hard to win a year-long soccer league by fluke. Conversely, if it’s hard for the favorites to win, then it must be easier for all the others.
But let’s look for the sport that does the best job at taking chance out of the equation. Maybe you’re thinking of the NBA or NHL because of their multi-game playoff series. But how about a sport that ends in less than 10 seconds? That is, of course, the Olympic 100-meter dash.
Maybe you think that a sport that’s over seconds after it begins can’t possibly be the one that best eliminates chance. Then again, maybe you’re not thinking of the bigger picture.
The Stanley Cup Playoff’s format is a pretty good way to ensure that the best hockey team lifts the cup, but let’s think about this for a second: Do the champions benefit from all that much luck on the ice? Maybe not. But what about off the ice? Let’s think about your chances of making it into the NHL.
Hockey is the dominant sport in Canada and is also popular in Northern and Eastern Europe, Russia and the northern states of the United States. If you live in Canada, you’ve probably played hockey at a young age. If you live in Russia, you may have also played hockey at a young age, depending on a variety of factors like income and location. But if you live in the Middle East, you’ve probably never played hockey before. And it doesn’t help that hockey’s not an easy sport to pick up late: If you haven’t got any experience on the ice by the time you enter college, don’t expect to find it easy. Just look at all the athletes in the South recruited to play football for elite programs; sure, many of them wouldn’t be cut out for hockey, but with such a high number of great athletes, you’re going to find a few who would be elite in the NHL.
The same logic applies to basketball: If you’re seven feet tall, you can be born anywhere, find your way into the NBA and pick up everything you need to pretty quickly. But what about the best guards? What if Steph Curry wasn’t the son of a professional basketball player? What if he was born outside the U.S.? If the entire world was exposed to basketball from an early age the way Curry was, the chances are that somewhere, someone would be a better shooter.
Think about archery: You might have fired a bow before, but you’ve probably never seriously taken part in the sport. Do you really know that you couldn’t have been the greatest archer the world has ever seen if you set your mind to it? If your parents had only let you realize your potential as the greatest archer in the world, you could be competing at the Olympics this year. But they didn’t. For someone, that’s basketball, or football, or baseball or hockey.
So the easy answer is soccer, right? It’s the most popular sport in the world, so it’s got to be the closest to eliminating the chance of birth. What makes sprinting, clearly a less popular sport, my number one? The chances are much greater you’ve played organized soccer than ran in a track meet. But think about transferring skills: People who don’t play soccer early are at a disadvantage, while people who are late to get into sprinting aren’t really. Virtually every sport involves some degree of running, so if you’re the best sprinter in the world, someone is going to notice it. A talented soccer player in the U.S. could be hanging around as a backup in the NBA because they barely played soccer in their youth, but there is no sport where you won’t recognize real speed. Even outside of organized sports, children run around, they race each other and you notice who’s fast. Eventually, these people find a way into track. And the best of them compete in the Olympics.
There’s not one person out there who could have beaten Usain Bolt but was unlucky enough to be born in the wrong part of the world. Only the Olympic Gold for the 100-meter dash can be won without the luck of the birthplace lottery.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.