AH, SWEET MYSTERY BECAUSE AMBIGUITY IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL, SOME QUESTIONS IN SPORTS ARE BEST LEFT UNANSWERED

September 22, 1996

A proposed match race between Olympic 100-meter champion Donovan
Bailey and Michael Johnson, who won the 200 and the 400 in
Atlanta, appears dead on the track (at least for 1996), if not
in the pages of The Globe and Mail of Toronto. The newspaper,
which proclaims itself Canada's national daily, printed a letter
last month from a Vancouver political scientist who was
insensitive enough to point out that Johnson, an American,
averaged 37.267 kilometers per hour in his world-record 200 in
Atlanta while Bailey, a Canadian home brew, averaged a mere
36.585 in his world-record effort. World's Fastest Man? Case
closed.

But many respondents were as swift as sprinters in huffily
noting that the opening 10 meters--the slowest segment of
virtually any race--consumed 10% of Bailey's event but only 5%
of Johnson's 200. Canadians with pocket calculators joined a
furious debate over spurious numbers, a news-print dialogue that
was more compelling than any made-for-TV match race could
possibly be.

The proposed 150-meter sprint-off is a loopy idea, a phony race
over a bastard distance that would prove nothing. Bailey and
Johnson ran their best times on their biggest days, extending
the threshold of human possibility in their respective
specialties. They certainly need no coda, especially a
contrivance such as a match race. There are no easy answers to
the question of who is faster--the American apple or the
Canadian orange--although The Globe and Mail stumbled onto the
most sensible solution: Let people argue. My letter writer can
beat your letter writer, best-of-three.

Sports isn't rocket science, though if the present trend
continues, it soon will be. There is almost nothing in our
athletic toy chest that nowadays isn't measured, quantified or
overly explained. The simple pleasures of the 1950s argument
over who was the best centerfielder in New York--Willie, Mickey
or the Duke--couldn't exist now, at least not without computer
printouts. Knowledge is good (Faber College's motto), but are we
really better off when the magician tells us how he pulls off
that business with the saw and the assistant?

The unexamined life might not be worth living, but here's one
vote for a little more ambiguity. If we are drawn to sports by
its sense of order in a gold-silver-bronze universe, it's the
gray, open-ended areas that engender the passion. Bonds or
Griffey Jr.? Elway or Marino? Gretzky or Lemieux? Bailey or
Johnson? Let's argue. For two weeks every year we should declare
a holiday from sports facts, beating the sabermetricians into
plowshares and trusting instead the inconclusive evidence of our
eyes and our instincts and our loyalties.

The NCAA seems happy enough to swap tradition for certitude as
it revamps the bowl system in its lurch toward crowning a
national college football champion. Of course there is nothing
wrong with tournaments--they serve the NCAA well in other
sports--but there was also nothing wrong with the bowls,
charming anachronisms that guaranteed some rousing
intersectional matchups and a chance to lull away a New Year's
Day hangover. If every few years the bowls offered No. 1 versus
No. 2 in a Game of the Century, it was a treat. If every few
years the student body at unbeaten Penn State whipped itself
into a froth because a President or a panel of sportswriters
said that another school had the best team, it enlivened the
debate.

We analyze. We compute. We pronounce. The NBA crowns a champion
three-point shooter at its All-Star Game weekend because it
thinks we must know who has the deadliest shot. The NHL times
its skaters in races around the rink during its All-Star Game
festivities because it thinks we have to know who is the
swiftest. The U.S. Tennis Association posts the speed of every
serve on the main court during the U.S. Open because it thinks
we must know who hits the ball the hardest.

Does it matter? Has anyone devised a test to tell us who is the
best three-point shooter with a hand in his face and 1.2 seconds
on the clock in a two-point game? Is it important to know which
Russian is the fastest skater if he shoots wildly while
streaking down the wing in overtime of a Stanley Cup playoff
game? What difference does it make that Mark Philippoussis has a
137-mph serve when Pete Sampras wins the tournament on guts?

Sports can be painted by numbers, but games are also a
laboratory of human behavior. Of courage. Of sacrifice. Of
leadership. If you could pick one man to start Game 7 of the
World Series, who would it be? To take the last-second shot over
Scottie Pippen in June? To sink a 12-foot putt on 18 to win the
U.S. Open? Can we discuss how many California Angels can dance
on the head of a pin without being told their record in day
games against other teams in the American League West?

My guess is that Michael Johnson is faster than Donovan Bailey.
Or maybe not. I'm open to debate. But remember, I know some
awfully tough letter writers.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of man inside stopwatch with line graph in background]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)