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Dr. J. on Running

Sports Protectionism

Class System Fails Again

Published June 14, 1999 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

The 1999 New York State outdoors track and field championship provided new evidence of the failure of the class system, and confirmed its role in the demise of American distance running. Classifying schools based on student population, and conducting separate class championships not only promotes protectionism, it also stifles athletic competition and lowers quality.

On one dark day in 1996, coaches and representatives voted to separate New York State's scholastic outdoor track and field competition into three classes. High schools with over 800 students rank in class A, those between 400 and 800 students form class B, those less than 400 students make up class C, which also includes the smaller class D schools.

Coaches reasoned that the class system provided fairness, promoted competition between schools of comparable size and resources, and recognized the efforts of David against Goliath. In reality, coaches sought to multiply the total number of trophies, giving many more of them the empty claim of having trained state champions.

The class system of scholastic sports protectionism is prevalent in team sports, but can hardly be justified when performance is measured in absolute times and distances. Denying athletes the opportunity to compete against the best in the state rewards mediocrity and inevitably lowers quality.

The recent scholastic outdoor championships across the country provided numerical evidence of the failure of the class system in track and field. While New York State joined the majority in holding separate class championships, California, Indiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey held true state championships.

Using the boys 3,200 meters as a benchmark led to interesting comparisons. While the class A New York State champion ran 3,200 meters in 9:15, the California champion ran 9:02, the Indiana champion ran 9:06, the Massachusetts champion ran 9:01, and the New Jersey champion ran 8:58.

Third place finishers ran 9:30 in NY, 9:02 in CA, 9:13 in IN, 9:23 in MA and 9:26 in NJ. Similarly, fifth-place finishers ran 9:36 in NY, 9:07 in CA, 9:23 in IN, 9:30 in MA and 9:32 in NJ. These patterns held for other events, and were similar for girls.

Sadly, athletic protectionism permeates all levels of competition, and is not limited to scholastic track and field. At the collegiate level, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) divides its member schools into three divisions, and conducts separate national championships for each division.

At the post-collegiate national level, frustration over foreign domination of local road races resulted in a misguided movement towards American-only events. Fortunately, wiser minds prevailed proving that Americans can still compete at the international level.

In industry and in commerce, calls for import protections ring loud every time a foreign competitor challenges a local manufacturer. Yet, we recognize that open markets and open competition are the only viable options in a global economy. Should we not extend this reasoning to athletics?

American distance running has suffered an alarming decline since the glory days of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. The number of sub 2:20 marathon performances by American runners has dropped tenfold in two decades. This demise of our sport is a direct consequence of class protectionism in our schools and colleges, a system that seeks to reward participation instead of recognizing excellence.

Imagine extending our scholastic and collegiate class system into the international arena, and dividing the Olympic Games into classes based on country population. Americans would then compete against athletes from China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh in class A, while runners from Kenya and Ethiopia would fight it out in class C That would certainly improve our medal yield.

Thankfully, scholastic indoor track and field in New York State remains faithful to the ideal of open competition, providing one true State championship. It is time that the leaders of our outdoor track and field programs recognize the error of their ways and return to open competition.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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