An interesting blog post by Anthony Famiglietti is stirring up quite the discussion about both him and his racing tactics. You'll remember he led the first half of the USATF Championships 5000m, and ran a big sprint to move from 8th to 1st mid-race, before ultimately finishing out of contention and not making the USA team. I've included the video of the race below.
I looked at the race this way. Fam came in with the top time. He likes to run from the front and he felt he would be strong enough to hold off enough competitors to qualify for Berlin whether he led or not. Ultimately, however, the wind took its toll, he struggled, and he didn't qualify.
Fam says he took the approach because it is a "win/win". He describes it like so:
I think the post was written on the wrong side of the race, unfortunately. Had he written something similar prior to the race, he might not be taking so much flack. Genuine or not, his analysis comes off more like a rationalization than a clear-cut motivation. However, let's take him at his word, because I do believe Fam has been a predominately genuine individual throughout his career. He puts himself out there, and that's why I enjoy watching him race and why his successes and failures can seem so acute.
I think Fam's overall message is spot-on. He is a two-time Olympian racing in an off-event, and he felt it was worth the risk to try and do it "his" way. There's nothing wrong with this at all. The fact that he didn't qualify might bother his sponsor and it might bother his most passionate supporters (both of whom are no doubt frustrated by his tactics), but success can be about more than just how you perform relative to your competition. How you performed relative to your own abilities is a perfectly valid measurement of your performance. I wrote about norm-referenced and self-referenced success at length in The Long and Short of Excellence.
Ultimately, Fam isn't content to settle for norm-referenced excellence (winning races, making teams, etc.). He's after something more elusive: self-referenced success (running PRs, executing perfectly, realizing his potential, etc.). Guys like Rupp and Teg are still focused on the former, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's the stage they're at in their careers. Guys like Pre focused on the latter, but were fortunate to have the norm-referenced success to legitimize their approach in our norm-referenced society. Fam will no doubt be kicking himself for his poor execution, but I doubt he'll ever seriously question the actual approach. Good for him.
As for raising the level of US distance running, I'm torn. He certainly raised the entertainment factor for the fans, which is appreciated. And he definitely made the race a little more honest. But I'm not sure athletes are ever going to follow his lead and run pedal-to-the-metal from the gun at championship races. And I'm not sure they should. I'll settle for seeing more athletes take more risks in general, however. I'm tired of seeing people who can't win kicker's races not going earlier, for example. The ironic thing about Fam doing it is that he's one of the few guys who doesn't need to.
Fam is still learning. It's no doubt a big reason he's approached this season the way he has. It's a journey of self-discovery. But just because that journey brings out his flaws for all to see, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a valid lesson to teach us all: that losing isn't usually the worst thing that can happen to you. That would be lying awake at night second-guessing why you didn't give it your all.