Racing Ghosts

If somebody started an Anything-Goes Olympic Games with no drug testing whatsoever it would be intriguing, but ultimately unfulfilling next to the real Olympics. Such an event would produce feats of strength and speed that never before seen. And that would be both its strength and weakness.

As much as any other sport baseball passed down from generation to generation. The annual spring ritual of father and son playing catch is timeless. Eventually the kid gets into Little League and plays a decade or so of organized ball before joining the rest of us schmucks on the bleachers to watch people far better than us play a game that kids play.

There is a level of anticipation that we feel watching a guy step up to the plate with two on and two out, or while Peyton Manning is conducting his offensive orchestra before a key snap. But there is a separate level of excitement we gain from sports in their longevity. I can say 713 or .406 to any baseball fan and they will know right away that is the number of home runs Babe Ruth hit and the average Ted Williams had in the last season anyone hit over .400.

We like these numbers because it allows us to compare the guys who are playing now with the guys our grandfathers watched when they were kids. (Or at least provides that illusion, the rules haven’t changed much, but professional sports are clearly different than they were 60 years ago.)

It’s this latter level of enjoyment that makes a lasting impression on fans. We want to watch the same game we were watching 20 years ago. Sure, we would watch in amazement as juiced-up sprinters ran 100 meters in 8 seconds, but our inability to compare their performance to yesteryears’ athletes—an Olympian is not just competing against himself, he’s competing against everyone who has ever participated in that event since Greece—would ultimately make such a spectacle less fulfilling.

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