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Kipchoge's Marathon: Inspiring or Not?

This past Saturday, Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Eliud Kipchoge journeyed even further into uncharted running territory by dipping under the two-hour mark in a tailor-made marathon in Vienna. 

The event, appropriately named the 1:59 Challenge, spurred just as much bewilderment as excitement, especially in the running community, where competitive athletes and recreational runners alike entered into fierce debate on the subject.

In the aftermath of the event, I was personally struck with a range of emotions and curiosities as a result of what I had just observed, in particular what it implies about the direction of the sport of distance running.

Over the course of my life, I have found inspiration in cases where people had triumphed in the face of adversity and unideal circumstances; in particular, the most profound inspiration has taken the form of triumph amidst relatable conditions, which allows us to begin to imagine the significance of any achievement.

Mankind is unquestionably guided by this notion of triumph: this is why so many among us are successful in escaping poverty; why mankind itself has survived the tempests of time, staving off extinction.

As a species, we have the uncanny ability to imagine a better life and, for better or worse, a better world. 

The field of friendly strife has long served to exhibit those human traits of courage, strength, endurance and perseverance, embodying the spirit of the human warrior who is capable of overcoming even the most improbable of circumstances.

This is primarily why we watch sports: not to witness the improvements in baseball bat technology, the responsiveness of any shoe, or the wondrous power of drugs, but to bear witness to the sheer potential of the human mind and body. 

While observing the unthinkable this past weekend, the mindful spectator sights the time at the finish line and privately inquires into its meaning, whereas the casual observer gleefully celebrates the occasion before finding something else to do.

The mindful spectator, who has followed the sport of distance running for some time, cannot justify his excitement about such a performance without closely examining the factors that enabled it, and concomitantly their implications for the sport.

As already established, athletic competition serves to pit two or more athletes against each other in a pure exhibition of human will and ability, whereas Kipchoge's performance this past weekend demonstrates, on the margin, only what is attainable through the perfect coalescence of conditions and technology. 

This is not to undermine the athletic ability or achievement of one of the undisputed all-time greats, but rather to illustrate that burgeoning trend in athletics away from its origins.

In the sport of running, I sense that we have always aspired to exhibit the best of human ability, but in a space of increasing contributions from technology it seems that we are becoming increasingly incapable of truly estimating the contribution of sheer human ability and training, as compared to the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by those aforesaid technological advances. 

While it is true that these advances combine with fine-tuned training and human ability to realize the greatest potential of our species, we are also distorting those performances by masking the manner in which they are produced. 

In the sport of running, times are relevant only for our ability to reference times that were previously set. 

In this case, we have developed a respect for any given time for its association with a set of exceptional athletes, who were at one time among the very best. 

Although we don't typically examine our reasons, fans of the sport are impressed by the presumption of a confluence of inherent (or genetically-endowed) talent, work ethic and training. 

When we encounter technology, such as improved shoes and track surfaces, we must determine how much of an allowance we will make before it radically distorts performances and jeopardizes our ability to remotely compare them to marks throughout history. 

Across the course of this sport's international history, we have made myriad concessions, both major and minor, in the domain of control variables: from the disproportionate advantages enjoyed by developed economies, where athletes needn't confront the rigors of survival faced by their counterparts in the Third World, to the benefits of lighter and more responsive shoes, and those of faster tracks, which have markedly improved over the past half century. 

On the international circuit, the advantage granted by track surfaces has been largely standardized, if only for the fact that all athletes in a given field will compete on the same surface. 

However, the same does not apply to shoe technology, which is protected by patent law and enjoyed by only a select cohort of athletes. 

Again, this is not to imply that the technology itself ought to outlawed or banned outright, but whether, or to what extent, the international body ought to allow it to influence international competition and records. 

In the wake of dramatic improvements to technology, the question becomes not whether we ought to reject these advances outright, but whether we wish to allow them to interfere with the sport on the international level. 

When considering the significance of prize winnings and world records, our intentions have always been directed at discovering the best of human ability. 

When an athlete exceeds a mark, whether a time, a height or a distance, we are unconsciously inspired by how it compares to marks set by our predecessors who competed with inferior technology; and if we are to grant technology an increasing role in driving athletic outcomes, especially where that technology is only narrowly available to a select number of athletes, we will become grossly incapable of comparing those marks across time and even between contemporaries. 

Kipchoge's sub-two-hour marathon reportedly serves to prove that "no human is limited." 

With the advents of technology still unimagined, there is seldom any doubt that we can journey faster, higher and farther than ever. 

The question is whether we want the sport to exhibit technological advances over sheer athletic ability; whether we wish to witness the achievement of a given brand, à la NASCAR, or that of the given man. 

At these margins, this question is more relevant than ever.


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