There are 302 events being contested at the London Olympics this summer. And while some impressive Olympic performances come out of all of them, let’s face it -- the gold medals awarded in some events represent a higher achievement than others.
Here’s my hypothesis: The 26 running events within Track and Field, ranging from 100 meters to 26.2 miles, are the most competitive -- and most “Olympic” -- events in the Olympic Games.
Am I saying that a marathon Olympic medal is better than a 10-meter air pistol medal? Or gold in the 100-meter dash is better than winning the all-around gymnastics title? I sure am. Running’s not just better; it’s objectively better, demonstrably better.
Here’s why (cue the Chariots of Fire music):
Running is the most stripped-down, merit-based sport on the Olympic program. There are no judges, and no complicated scoring rules. There are no subjective qualification decisions. There are no referees or equipment failures or controversial instant replays (U.S. Trials women's 100 meters a rare exception). There are no technique specialties or technical maneuvers or artistic flourishes. There’s a starting line and a finish line, and the best athlete wins.
Running is the most competitive sport on the Olympic program. A sport’s competitiveness is directly proportional to how accessible the sport is globally. Anyone can run. And millions do. Running enjoys more competitive and recreational participation than any other sport on the planet. More than 500,000 people complete a marathon every year in the U.S. alone. Add to that local 5K fun runs and high school cross-country meets and it’s difficult to find anyone in this country who has not competed at some point in a running race. When was the last time 30,000 people showed up on a weekend morning to participate in a rowing regatta, swim meet, or table tennis tournament?
Many factors make running more accessible, and thus more competitive. Unlike sailing or cycling, running requires no expensive equipment. And unlike gymnastics, fencing, or volleyball, running requires no special facility or field of play. Running is cheap and it can be done anywhere. And that makes it accessible to people of any socioeconomic class.
You won’t see any Ethiopians challenging Anne Romney’s horse in Dressage, but you will see Ethiopians elbow to elbow with (or way ahead of) Americans, Asians, Australians and other Africans on the track. Every socioeconomic class is represented in running events, because no socioeconomic class is inherently excluded.
Running is inclusive in other ways, too. Peak age, for example. Elite runners can remain competitive from their early 20s into their mid-30s. Contrast that with a sport like gymnastics, where you’re competing on borrowed time once you outgrow your teens. Unless your parents push you into a sport like gymnastics when you’re 3, you’ll be far behind the curve before you’re even aware of what the Olympics is.
Higher participation means higher levels of competition for medals. And higher levels of competition make the achievement of winning more valuable.
Running is the most diverse sport on the Olympic program. (Chariots of Fire music screeches to a halt.) Yeah, that Oscar-worthy scene with the upper-middle-class British white guys running on the beach to that music that makes you cry? That was 1924. Times have changed.
There are strong majorities of white athletes in some sports, like swimming, gymnastics, rowing, and cycling. There are majorities of Asian athletes in other sports like badminton and table tennis. When a sport is big in one region of the world, and not others, the Olympic gold medal is naturally worth less because fewer people are competing for it.
With participating athletes from every continent except Antarctica, running has by far the widest distribution of ethnicities and nationalities represented at the Olympics. Even more than soccer, which is often referred to as “the world’s game.”
Running is the most historic Olympic sport. Part of the first Olympic program at the 1896 Olympiad in Athens, running has roots as far back as 490 BC, when Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to bring word of victory in the Battle of Marathon. The distance he traveled, of course, became the standard for the modern marathon.
Other sports that have been on the Olympic program since 1896 include cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and Wrestling. None of them are as competitive, internationally, as running.
The pinnacle of running glory is the Olympic gold medal. There are many sports that can claim this (gymnastics, rowing, swimming, etc.), but it’s worth noting that there are several sports, like soccer, basketball, and tennis, that award prizes at other marquee competitions that are perceived by athletes and fans to be more precious. LeBron James grew up wanting to win an NBA championship, not an Olympic gold medal. Same with Roger Federer and his Grand Slams, and Ronaldo and the World Cup. If an Olympic gold medal isn’t the pinnacle of a sport, it’s not a great Olympic sport.
Fittingly, the running events got underway Friday in view of the Olympic flame, which has not been seen since the Opening Ceremony a week ago. This weekend’s marquee races include the men’s and women’s 100-meter sprint. Next week will feature a packed schedule of sprints, middle-distance battles, and the relays. The woman’s marathon is this Sunday. In keeping with tradition, the men will run 26.2 miles next Sunday, the final day of the Games. The winners of these events will be able say, more than any other athletes in London, that they are the best in the world.
Ryan Quinn is the author of The Fall: A Novel. He was an NCAA Champion and All-American cross-country skier at the University of Utah. He now lives in Los Angeles.