Running is not baseball. Let’s start there. In baseball, sliding into the plate and diving for the catch are fundamental elements of the game. Players learn those moves when they are children, and they practice them in nearly every game of their lives.
Not so in running. Contact between the ground and any part of your body except the bottoms of your feet is generally to be avoided. Usually it means you have tripped. Often it means you will hurt (in ways that baseball players never seem to).
Occasionally, though, runner might be faced with the finish line dive, when they want to win a race so badly that they are willing to put scabs on their faces to do it. However, maybe the true dynamics of some of the grand finale falls we have seen don’t fit into a headline. Maybe what looks like a dive is something else entirely.
For Yevgeniy Arzhanov in the 1972 Olympic 800 final, it was a real dive of desperation. He had won every 800 final he had contested in the four years previous. The gold medal practically had his name on it. He had a solid two-meter lead when he entered the homestretch for the final 100m in Munich. He still had a solid lead with 10-meters to go. Then Dave Wottle pulled alongside with just two steps left. Arzhanov thrust his body forward on his last stride, doing everything he could to try to hold on to his gold. Wottle’s momentum was just too strong, however. The American stayed upright and won an upset victory in 1:45.86. Arzhanov crossed the line three one-hundredths of a second later, and lay bloodied on the track, arm draped over the inside rail.
For PattiSue Plumer at the 1991 Prefontaine Classic mile, it was, well, more of a fight. Plumer, one of the strongest U.S. distance runners of the era, had a ferocious rivalry with Suzy Favor (later Hamilton), who won the USA Champs that year. Throw into the mix a young Maria Mutola, later an Olympic champ but at age 19 a high school student in Springfield, Oregon, and you had a real dust-up. The three were close and tangled when they began the kick on the last turn. Plumer claimed she was cut off by Mutola and in nearly falling, had to grab Favor’s jersey. And that was only the appetizer! At the finish, Plumer recovered her sprint enough to chase Favor down. She lunged at the finish and fell, clocking a 4:33.04 that came just short of Favor’s 4:32.99. Fingers were pointed.
“When someone tries to pass you, you try to keep them from passing any way you can,” said Plumer. “At the wrong time for me, she gave an elbow in mid-stride and I went flying.”
“We try to keep it interesting,” Favor said, of her second bumping encounter with Plumer that season.
For Kathy Rounds in the 1999 USA Championships 800, it was the foul with the golden lining. Rounds, a 1:59.28 performer, was not considered a sure thing to make the team for the World Champs in Seville that summer. The competition ran tough at Hayward Field that day, with Jearl Miles-Clark taking the win at 1:59.47, and Meredith Rainey grabbing second in 2:00.36. That left Rounds and veteran Joetta Clark fighting for the last team spot. In the tangle before the line, Clark gave Rounds a push and sent her across the line horizontally. “I felt a hand on my back and I guess I got pushed,” said Rounds. “But it was worth it.” She slid across the line in 2:00.71, winning the trip to Spain by 0.03, along with stitches in her chin.
What happened at the Stadion Letzigrund last night has tongues wagging, since Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury created the most thrilling finish of the year in their clash at Zurich’s legendary Weltklasse meet. The race started off not unlike the previous week’s Stockholm event, with a very similar cast of characters, minus Genzebe Dibaba. Fortunately, Phoebe Wright did a commendable job as the new rabbit.
World leader Sifan Hassan repeated her mistake of running directly to the back of the pack and then wasting ghastly amounts of energy in catching back up. Once again, that put her in the position of having to sprint hard several times during the race. With 100 to go, that put her exactly where she wanted to be—a step behind the hard-leading Simpson—but missing exactly what she needed, a sprint.
When they hit the straight, Hassan moved out for the pass. Simpson saw that coming and moved to the outside of her lane to force Hassan into some extra yardage. Meanwhile, behind them, Rowbury had put together a beautifully intelligent race and decided her best line of attack would be from the inside.
Simpson had vanquished Hassan’s meager kick with 35-meters to go, but was not aware of Rowbury’s inside charge until the last eight meters or so. She moved in slightly, but it was too late to close off the lane. She threw her left arm out a bit wider than normal and made contact with Rowbury, who kept charging.
Pause here to discuss what is intentional and what is reactive. Intentional is when a runner makes a decision and pursues it consciously. “Rowbury intentionally went for the inside pass with all its inherent risks.” Reactive is when a runner acts instinctively in response to a situation that they don’t control. “Simpson threw out her arm reactively.” People who attend too many high school meets in the U.S.—as well as certain top coaches—like to speculate about whether or not athletes should be disqualified for “offenses” on the track. I would agree with them, if Simpson had punched Rowbury. But an arm flailing? That’s a normal, reactive response in the world of international racing. And to those who think their local high school official would DQ Simpson for not running a straight line in the last stretch, watch the video of Rowbury’s finish against Molly Huddle at the USATF 5000.
Bottom line—there are no villains here. This is racing. Anyone bothered by it should stick to high school meets.
The arm is still the key, however. When the arm made contact with Rowbury, that initiated Simpson’s dive. Or can you even call it a dive? In an email, Simpson herself says no. “Despite the dramatic headlines from Zurich, I did not dive at the line. I fell due to contact in the race. I’m just fortunate that I fell forward and across the line!”
The two tumbled across the line in a tangle, a mere hundredth separating them, 3:59.92-3:59.93. Simpson picked up some stitches and the win (though she didn’t realize it for a while). Rowbury, who hit especially hard, seemed dazed and disappointed. Both athletes competed brilliantly and both have every reason to be proud.
Concludes Simpson, “My personal opinion is that diving is not an effective strategy even when the race is close, and I haven’t ever done it. If it was truly the fastest way to finish I think we would see sprinters trying it when the races are far closer and usually higher stakes. I think the fastest way to finish is to keep your form and stay on your feet. That’s what I’m always trying to do. :)”
Diving? Perhaps you don’t want to practice them, unless you’re looking for more scars as a conversation starter. Recall our conversation about intent? Maybe the best thing to remember is that a fall is not always a dive; sometimes, in racing, things happen to you.
Results (28 August 2014): 1. Jenny Simpson (USA) 3:59.92; 2. Shannon Rowbury (USA) 3:59.93; 3. Viola Kibiwot (Kenya) 4:00.46; 4. Sifan Hassan (Netherlands) 4:00.72; 5. Meraf Bahta (Sweden) 4:01.34; 6. Brenda Martinez (USA) 4:01.36; 7 Mimi Belete (Brunei) 4:01.63; 8. Abeba Aregawi (Sweden) 4:03.40; 9. Hellen Obiri (Kenya) 4:04.75; 10. Federica Del Buono (Italy) 4:06.80; 11. Eunice Sum (Kenya) 4:10.22; 12. Maryam Jamal (Brunei) 4:18.10;… rabbits—Phoebe Wright (USA), Irene Jelegat (Kenya).