Nick Symmonds has been dubbed the Brad Pitt of track and field. The five-time US Champion in the 800m, two-time Olympian and silver medalist at the 2013 World Championships seems to making some headlines: he’s dated Paris Hilton, sold his body for ad space, set the American record in the beer mile, was rumored to be the next “Bachelor” and one time tweeted an almost naked picture to get an apparel sponsor. He’s constantly bringing media attention to track and field — attention it might desperately need.
In 2011, the last day of the World Championships for track and field on NBC garnered about 1.6 million viewers, while Sunday Night Football on NBC averages about 20 million viewers. That’s a pretty unfair comparison; an American pastime pitted against a sport that consists of running in circles. However, with USA Track and Field making a push to increase its revenue, they could definitely use more eyeballs. Symmonds has a few (controversial) ideas: in an interview, he proposed a new scheme for making track events fun which includes serving alcohol, abbreviating meets and betting on runners like horses in the Derby.
Allowing alcohol for the audience wouldn’t be particularly revolutionary. As Symmonds notes, meets can run for hours and everything’s a bit more enjoyable when you’re several sheets to the wind. But introducing and promoting gambling could have a profound effect on the world of track. The entire notion of betting on people seems dehumanizing, but that’s not even the main problem: in a sport that’s almost entirely objective, gambling adds a subversive, subjective tint. The allure of track is at least partially in its zero-sum aspect: you win races if you run the fastest, simple as that. Gambling adds another layer to running which hasn’t existed before — we’d have to start questioning athletes’ efforts and motives even more so than we do already. In a sport that’s having problems with doping, this added pressure could increase drug use in athletes and eventually ruin the integrity of a sport based purely on time and distance.
Track is basically like an indie band right now. Some are calling for it to jump into the mainstream: let people gamble, let them drink beer, increase revenues. But others find the simplicity, the community, and the philosophy behind the running community fundamentally different from how Americans usually watch sports for a reason. Although everyone’s motivations are their own, there’s a kinship among runners that could be threatened by pumping money into the sport.
Being a good runner won’t really get you rich or famous outside of the running community — people run because they love it, and that’s what makes the sport so unique and the community so tight-knit. By adding betting to the equation, you run the risk of attracting people that only want financial success. Do runners deserve to get rich for being talented? Yeah, probably. But this move still takes away from the track community.
The problem facing professional running isn’t just whether or not it’s ethically right to gamble on humans. It’s a philosophical battle: commercialization vs. authenticity. There are two basic choices: make track into a sport people care about, lose some integrity and make a lot of money, or retain the small group of people who already care and force runners to live off their minimal winnings. A happy medium would be great, but with hotties like Nick Symmonds leading the charge and a few gimmicky stunts already launched to draw the media spotlight, it might already be too late for track purists. Running is turning mainstream — whatever that means — leaving many feeling like the annoying fan who keeps saying the band’s first album was better.