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In Praise of the Lesser-Known Elite Athlete

by on September 15, 2015 6:00 AM

On Saturday I joined seventy-thousand of my closest friends as we alternately sat and stood in the rain watching Penn State’s football team defeat Buffalo.

Over one hundred highly skilled athletes lined the field of play and showcased their talents to the crowd.

A crowd that, torrential downpour or not, was a good distance from the athletic contest on the field. Some people in the stadium are 100 yards away from the field – farther from the field than the size of the field itself. 

Even the lowest seats along the rail can only get you within twenty yards to the central start of any action. Although we were there in number and spirit, there was a bit of a physical gap between us and the athletes.

Yet, less than a week prior to that football game I had an up-close-and-personal seat for a different athletic contest – the Mt. Nittany Marathon. (Full disclosure – as president of the Mount Nittany Conservancy I am deeply involved in the planning of the marathon.)

I rode my mountain bike, along with several other volunteers on their bicycles, as we led the first-place runner through the course. For 26.2 miles we had the honor and pleasure of witnessing an elite athlete practice his craft within a few yards of us. A craft he practiced so well that several times going uphill he passed me. That’s right – going up several hills I was pedaling furiously on my bike and was passed by a runner. And if it weren’t for downhills soon after, I might not have caught up!

This was as up-close-and-personal as you can get to a finely-tuned athlete while they engage in their sport. Which is an amazingly enlightening experience. Having the opportunity to physically share that space with an athlete gives you a great appreciation for the enormity of the physical challenge the athlete is accomplishing, and that’s something many fans never get.

Granted, for centuries fans have gathered to watch sporting events in large arenas and separated themselves physically from the athletes themselves. This is not a new phenomenon, and there have always been a very small number of sports where spectators can be up-close-and-personal to the competitors while they play. 

Long foot races – cross-country and marathons – sitting behind home plate, and golf come to mind. Anyone who has stood next to the tee-box of a long par-five hole at any PGA Tour event in country and watched golfer after golfer come through and crack 300-plus-yard laser drives knows the PGA’s slogan, “These guys are good” is an understatement.

Since the birth of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network in 1979, those with cable television have had access to 24-hour sports entertainment – increasing the exposure for sports overall, but eliminating the need for the physical presence of many fans. As television programming options grow, so do the amount and variety of sports programming options that require no more “fandom” than a couch and a cold beverage. 

It has long been a contention of mine that television homogenizes or normalizes the performances of elite athletes – as it does with just about anything it touches. Television has a tendency to make things that are very difficult appear easy. People see something on TV and think or say, “Oh, I could do that.” When, in fact, the opposite is usually true – no, you couldn’t do that. The person doing it is just so good at it that it looks easy.

During marathons you’ll see a manifestation of this when someone in the crowd tries to run along with the leaders. And lasts about twenty yards.

I’ll break this down for you. Scott McArthur from Somerville, Massachusetts won the Mt. Nittany Marathon in 2 hours and 40 minutes.  That’s just over a six-minute-per-mile pace. Which translates to a 90-second quarter-mile – one lap of a standard “track.”  Going one step further it equates to a 20-second 100-yard dash, or a 10-second 50-yard dash. 

Here’s a test for you: Go out in the street in front of your house, pace off 50 yards and create an imaginary “start” and “finish” line.  Use a tape measure if you have one.  Set the stopwatch function on your phone, and start running full speed a few yards before your “start” line.  Click the stopwatch as you pass the start line and again when you cross the finish. 

Did you hit 10 seconds? Great! You only have to do that 928 more times in a row without stopping to do what Scott did.

Did you hit eight seconds? Congratulations! If you can do that 928 times in a row without stopping you’ll be close to a world record in the marathon.  

And therein lies the beauty of the elite athlete. 

As far as college athletes are concerned, the NCAA president says, “The most important thing you can do is buy football tickets. If you love rowing, buy football tickets. If you love cross country, buy football tickets. We couldn’t do any of those other sports if we weren’t successful in football.”

However, here in Happy Valley we have hundreds of elite athletes in many sports – youngsters, college-age and older – and I urge you to use every opportunity you can to witness first-hand their prowess. In most cases you’ll have as up-close-and-personal a seat as you can possibly get.  And that’s an enlightening experience you’ll never have in front of a TV set.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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