---- — Do you recognize the names Guy Perillat and Milorad Cavic? They came in second to Olympic gold medalists Jean-Claude Killy and Michael Phelps, respectively, each by a single hundredth of second. Or as it’s called in the real world, a tie.
If the time clock was measured in tenths of a second, or even fiftieths of a second, Killy and Perillat would have tied in the 1968 Winter Games. They both would have received gold medals and become darlings of the ‘60s jet set. Phelps and Cavic might both be starring in Subway commercials if they had tied in the 100-meter butterfly in London in 2012. Instead, Cavic lost by 0.01 of a second.
By contrast, Usain Bolt won the gold in London by beating Yohan Blake in the 100-meter sprint by just over one-tenth of a second, and even to the untrained eye, it was an obvious victory. It wasn’t even close. You could see who won easily, without debate, no photo finish required.
There are a great many good things about keeping hyper-accurate time. It’s good for training and it’s good for the record books. But in competitions, hypersensitive timekeeping makes being 0.01 of a second behind the “winner” somewhat like being a Soviet politician in the Cold War who falls out of favor. You’re removed from the history books; your name is never spoken again. You become a nonperson.
Sports seems to be one of the few human endeavors that hates a tie — someone has to win. Why? A lot of people would go to a movie that starred Julia Roberts or Meryl Streep. But they would also go to a movie that starred Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. They’re both winners. There is no second place. In show business, there are lots of winners; hundreds of stars can walk down the red carpet at the Academy Awards and they’ll all get the over-the-top celebrity treatment. But if gold and silver Olympians walk into an event, the silver medalist may as well be in the witness protection program for all the attention he won’t get. He’ll never see his face on a Cheerios box; he won’t be in TV ads; he won’t get as many sponsors.
Contestants that get kicked off “Survivor” on their very first week will get a publicist and an agent to paw through their offers to appear on morning shows and at state fairs. It gets even stranger if you compare someone who comes in second at the Olympics to, say, the 71st best TV sportscaster in the country, who is treated like the Sun King. He doesn’t have to be first, second or third best. He just has to be on TV. People take him to lunch, they send him trinket-loaded swag bags and he plays free rounds of pro-am golf at all the best courses. He gets asked for autographs and begged to heal sick relatives with his magic touch. But he thinks that the guy who comes in third in the downhill is a bum — someone who didn’t try hard enough.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’m not for lowering the standards of sports. Trying your hardest and never giving up are admirable qualities, but most of us do that every single day without expecting a medal for it. For the gold, you can’t just be good at something — you have to be the best. Most gold medalists win by remarkable margins; they dominate their competition.
If Phelps and Cavic had tied, Phelps still would have come home with a remarkable and record-breaking eight gold medals — a performance that may never be duplicated. Killy would still have the three golds he won in 1968 as well as a couple of World Cups. Nothing would change for those two, but it might have for their competitors.
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life,” “Baby’s First Tattoo” and “Now in Paperback.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.