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Politics Could Learn from Athletics

July 28th, 2022 by dk

Track and Field is a better sport than all the others. Its alternate moniker, Athletics, speaks to the primacy and purity of the sport — it’s really just the athletes doing various athletic things. They don’t compete against one another. They compete together against physics. They aim to upend expectations, defy limits, and redefine what’s possible.

Winning grabs our attention, but training is the core of the sport. Opponents rarely introduce variables that can’t be overcome with discipline and technique. “Stop Pre” t-shirts endure as a joke against this deeper truth. Each athlete runs their own race.

We’re privileged to see what doesn’t fit inside the dominant narrative of winning. The sacrifices made might become background material after a victory, but most of it falls outside the frame. Many restaurants were disappointed that extra people didn’t produce extra business, especially the first week. But splurging is not in Athletics’ DNA.

We watched their everyday actions — a sprinter crossing the street, a shot-putter buying groceries, a relay team chatting under a tree. We witnessed how a severely disappointed competitor completes his day and then begins another one.

Devon Allen stands atop my podium of inspirational losers. He was disqualified from the 100 meter hurdles final for reacting too quickly to the starter’s pistol. Some rule-maker fond of round numbers had decided in advance what was humanly possible. (Isn’t that the point of the competition — to exceed what’s considered possible?)

This round-number rule-maker decreed that all humans require at least one-tenth of a second to react to the starter gun. Allen launched his pursuit of a world record in .099 seconds — one-thousandth of a second “too fast.” He accepted the judgment. Until the rule is changed, he promised to react more slowly in the future.

Allen’s disqualification produced something that was otherwise seldom heard inside Hayward Field: boos. Track fans are primarily exactly that — fans of the sport itself. Rooting for your favorites is fun, but not necessary. Tribes without tribalism — no wonder the sport hasn’t gained a foothold with American audiences.

A new world record evokes hearty cheers, even when it’s earned by a Swede or a Jamaican. Excellence is appreciated for what it is. Marvel at the purity of competition when the only real foes are height, distance, and time. Track fans revel in history being made — to see something that no one else has ever seen.

The sport itself carries that history forward, with its rules, records, and regulations. Athletes and fans fit themselves into that larger context. It gives meaning to the moments. A hurdler devotes years perfecting technique for a task that’s completed in 13 seconds. That’s pure competition, give or take a thousandth of a second.

If only we practiced politics with this same purity of heart! It wasn’t very long ago that our leaders were quick to remind us that their opponent was not their enemy. That each election determines who is best suited to carry the tradition and uphold the vision. That we’re all devoted to our system, our heritage and our country together.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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