Today, as a fun exercise, I thought I’d write something I strongly believe in that is also inherently ridiculous after which I try reasoning my way out of that ridiculous statement. My ridiculous statement today: I think Olympic track champion Jeremy Wariner is a ridiculous athlete and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate him, I would actively root against him in a race. I know that seems ridiculous, and I doubt Jeremy Wariner himself is going to lose sleep after realizing I am not a big fan of his, but I am adamant that this is important because spectators are fans of athletes for different reasons and I often find that if I think really hard about why I like this team but not that team, I gain insight into how fan attachment works.
So who am I talking about? Jeremy Wariner was the Gold medalist in Athens in the 400 meter dash and silver medalist in Beijing. This year he finished 6th in the Olympic trials and is on the team as a relay specialist. He’s hardly relevant, but, hey I didn’t have a blog in 2004 when I first had these thoughts, so suck it.
An easy reason to dislike Jeremy Wariner is that he’s decked out in a lot of “bling” (as the kids like to call it) when he runs. Specifically, he has big flashy earrings, sunglasses, necklaces and the like.
This isn’t really a strong reason to dislike him although it doesn’t make me particularly fond of him either. If anything it distracts from the true issues at stake which is my feelings towards Jeremy Wariner. It’s as if he’s saying to me “Orrin, I know you’re unsure whether you like me or not, but does this 24-karat necklace and this diamond-studded earring change your mind? Pretty cool jewelry I’m wearing, huh?” I also think it would be distracting for Jeremy himself to run around the track adorned like 50 Cent. Doesn’t that slow him down? I wonder if given the choice, he’d also opt to have an entourage running follow him in adjoining lanes as well. But I mostly leave that out of the equation: If Jeremy Wariner wants to get all dressed up for me, that’s his business.
Another slight issue at stake is that Jeremy Wariner went to Baylor University and is very likely from Texas. He came on the scene at the height of George W. Bush’s unpopularity. I’m not suggesting that disliking everyone who became famous in 2004 from the state of Texas is rational but the beauty of being a sports fan is you don’t need rationality for deciding who to like. I only knew that whenever Jeremy Wariner spoke in his Texas drawl in celebration of his victory a mere two months before another man in a Texas drawl was threatening to win another four years in office, I did not like it.
But the main reason I dislike Jeremy Wariner is that after he won his medal, he gave a press conference in which he hired Michael Johnson* as his agent and said that he wanted to go professional. He said his goals were to be the best in the world and to break 44 seconds. I know this seems like a harmless act: To say that you want to be the best in the world seems like the thing you’re supposed to say.
Except for this: He was proclaiming his goals to be things he’d already done. He just became the best in the world when he won the Gold medal and he had already broken 44 seconds in the 400 meter dash. It’s a minute difference. He could have just said “I want to continue to stay on top” rather than “I want to be on top” but his lapse was representative of his high degree of automation when answering all the other questions he was asked. All of his answers to questions were designed to be “the right answer” and, even worse, the questions he was being given weren’t particularly hard questions to answer, which made this lapse stick out even more.
When Jeremy Wariner was giving this press conference, it was a couple weeks before I became the beat writer for James Madison University’s cross-country and track teams. I found the sport highly exciting to watch but I came across the conundrum when interviewing that I was mostly asking questions to which I already knew the answers simply because I needed a minimum of three different sources for an article. If you ask athletes about their motivation, it’s obviously to have wanted to win the race or the boxing match or whatever it is they were trying to do. They also are not complete idiots so they won’t badmouth teammates or coaches. It’s not like I was necessarily looking to be Jerry Springer, but these restrictions mean that an athlete can’t discuss their process or team’s organization in any critical way. In the case of Wariner, he seems to not just play the game but almost believe he’s actually saying interesting things in a press interview which he isn’t.
Secondly, I don’t really admire Wariner’s goals. For the last eight years, since proving that he can do this, Wariner has devoted himself to running a lap around the track faster than anyone else in the world. That he hasn’t succeeded in doing this (a silver in Beijing is close enough) is beyond the point. I think it’s a shoddy goal. Now I know what you’re thinking: What about a person who remains a world-class distance runner or sprinter over the span of three Olympics like Hachim El Garrouj or Allyson Felix?
A sprinter is admirable because they’re pushing the limits of how fast a human being can go. Distance running is a sport of a thousand variables. Watch some professional-level 800 meter races and you’ll notice that even though the runners will usually finish in a 3 second range (1:44-1:46.99 although a small handful of people in the world go under 1:44 in any given year and some guy in Kenya ran 1:41), no two races go the exact same way.
Running a 400 meter race looks exactly the same every time. Jeremy Wariner goes fast after the gun fires, stays fast, and finishes ahead of everyone. When Wariner was second in the world behind LaShawn Merritt, it was the same thing except Merritt would be ahead of him when he crossed the line. There was no suspense or excitement in watching it and it’s not that much of a leap to assume that there’s little suspense or excitement running this.
As a former track runner, I can testify that running a 400 is a unique and difficult challenge because you can’t sprint the entire distance leaving you to ration your energy (although if I’m a world class athlete, I would imagine this problem is less severe). But I imagine that challenge would have been conquered a long time ago. Wariner is the equivalent to me of an actor who wants to be typecast in the same role over and over again or a desk jockey who doesn’t want to expand past his original job description. I personally just can’t see how what he’s doing could be continually challenging.
Why don’t I feel this way about LeShawn Merritt or other 400 runners? The only other 400-meter runner I know of is LeShawn Merritt and he has professionally run the 200 and 300 and I happen to know in high school he ran the 300, 500, and 55 meter dash as well. Past that, I would be just as willing to look down upon the other 400 runners if I knew that they lacked the same determination to challenge themselves for eight years in a way that was, in fact, not at all challenging.
So there you have it.
*Michael Johnson is a guy I also dislike. The first summer Olympics I really got into was Atlanta in 1996 and Michael Johnson was the poster boy of that Olympics. He was supposedly incredible because he was doing something that had never been done before: Winning both the 200 and the 400. Once, I started running track and following the sport, I realized that this all is really not that big of a deal at all. Aside from the 100-200, 300-500 (indoors), 5K-10K or 1600-3200 doubles, 200-400 is a very common double to achieve. They’re both essentially long sprinting events. The most challenging double is really 400-800 and a Cuban runner did achieve this in Montreal 1976. The only reason Michael Johnson is more well-known is because we hate Cuba and also because of Johnson’s humongous marketing juggernaut team.