Hollywood tearjerkers aren’t my entertainment preference. I’ll acquiesce to the goosebumps and partake of one, however, if it’s somehow tethered to reality and common sense.
The same goes for athletic feelgood stories.
Sports are enough of an escape from the real world that I don’t need them to be my mood enhancer. I am quick to appreciate a triumph of the human spirit if takes place within the boundaries of the rules and doesn’t make itself larger than the game. I’m less tolerant when it appears contrived.
Which is why, at the familiar risk of falling into a vast minority, I am no fan of the print and social media love-fest directed at the conclusion to the Maine men’s race of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K earlier this month.
Surely you’ve read the story or watched the video. If not, there’s a strong chance you eventually will. It seems tailor-made for an overly sublime Sunday morning piece on the otherwise ridiculous ESPN. Or a click-bait link on someone’s positive-thinking Facebook page (“A runner collapsed, and you’ll never believe what happened next!”)
Jesse Orach, a recent University of Maine graduate, dominated the event until running out of steam and stumbling to the ground a few meters from the finish. Robert Gomez, the Bates College graduate and perennial contender who had given futile chase all morning, picked up his rival, essentially carried him the rest of the way and hurled him like the proverbial 10-pound bag of Aroostook potatoes across the finish line.
And so Orach, after he spent many tense minutes in the medical tent being treated for heat-related illness, was declared the winner. Gomez’s seemingly instinctive act was hailed statewide as the greatest act of sportsmanship since, oh I dunno, the handshake line at the end of every Stanley Cup playoff series.
Please tell me I’m not the only person who thought the whole episode violated the sanctity of what has arguably become Maine’s highest-profile sporting event.
For all its cult trappings and labor-of-love sensibilities, running is a sport. Sports have strategy and are governed either by a clock or a designated segment in time and space. As an athlete or coach, you plan your strategy to fit within that window, and whoever is leading when you reach that conclusion is the winner. That’s how all this stuff works.
Much as I respect the courage it takes for Orach to excel at his sport and concede that it is far beyond my ability and will, the guy miscalculated. Orach weighed the weather, the distance and his own fitness level, based on his previous experience in the B2B and a thousand other races, and he simply went out too quickly. His pace was worthy to win a race that was 9.9 kilometers, not 10.
When interviewed after his cool-down, Gomez shrugged off his decision by declaring that Orach deserved to win the race and he didn’t.
Again, flawed logic, and you don’t have to be a world-class runner to pick it apart. Simply revert to when you were five years old, the first time you heard the fable about the tortoise and the hare. The guy who spent most of the race in the runner-up spot had the superior strategy. He absolutely deserved to win and chose not to accept a victory that rightfully belonged to him.
At least one race steward acknowledged that the letter of the law dictated that Orach and Gomez could have been doubly disqualified. That didn’t happen, which I get from an immediate public-relations standpoint. But it seemed like an awfully dubious confession from a spokesman for an event that glowingly promotes its own prestige.
Just imagine this happening in any other environment.
Tom Brady isn’t about to send a Super Bowl ring to Matt Ryan’s house with a handwritten note attached. “You guys played better than we did for 50, 51, 52 minutes. I really don’t deserve this. Besides, I have four of ’em already.”
Muhammad Ali didn’t bend down and hoist Sonny Liston to his feet while whispering in his ear on that long-ago May night in Lewiston. “Sorry, man. That was just a glancing blow. There’s no way it should have kept you down for 17 seconds. And besides, I know how hard you trained. Let’s keep fighting and may the best man win, ‘kay?”
Or in a racing context, how about the leader of the Daytona 500 or Oxford 250 runs out of gas in the final turn? I can just imagine the post-race interview with the second-place finisher, nary a champagne bottle or trophy gal in sight. “Shoot, he was so fast all day long. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t push him across the line.”
I keep hearing the ridiculous, and yes, ever-so-slightly arrogant assertion that running is different. Fools such as I don’t understand the sacrifice and the camaraderie. Maybe not. Perhaps that’s why your sport only achieves mainstream recognition once in April, once in August and every fourth summer.
This chorus of Kumbaya and passing of the wreath as if it were a peace pipe is frighteningly symptomatic of a world in which winning doesn’t matter as much anymore.
A tearjerker, indeed.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports staff. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. You may reach him by email at [email protected]