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Sunday, October 22, 2006

What the ...?

The other day I saw a wierd thread title at "Why does J Squires hate Ryun so much?"

Before answering that question, I've got to explain where this all came from. In various forums I've argued that Ryun's career accomplishments are a bit overstated, and his contemporary Kip Keino's accomplishments are understated. But I haven't made this argument in years.

Apparently, in another thread about Jim Ryun someone else has been making the same argument, and it's been assumed that it's me. I don't post under pseudonyms, however; I think it's a chickenshit lowlife thing to do. Also, anyone who knows my writing style would immediately recognize it as not mine.

If you read the first thread I linked to, there are some fairly nasty comments involved (although they aren't that mean by Let's Run standards). Should I be angry that I'm getting grief for something I didn't even do? Well, in the words of Dick Armitage, "The higher you climb up the tree, the more your ass shows", meaning that if people read my stuff and know who I am then somebody's going to take potshots at me. I have to take the bad with the good if I'm going to put my opinions online.

Here's my argument on Jim Ryun: while his two years at the top (1966-67) were probably the two greatest seasons a miler has ever had, two years simply isn't enough to say that he's the best miler ever. His contemporary, Kip Keino, never set a World Record or cracked the top three in Athlete of the Year voting, but showed remarkable consistency over an eight-year period. Comparing them is in effect trying to compare apples and oranges. Who you pick depends entirely on what you think is important.

When trying to compare the all-time greats in each event, my criteria reward consistency over short bursts of brilliance, and winning over world records. I didn't just make these criteria up; they are based on those of Track & Field News' World Rankings and Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract. For the most part, I look at what the athlete was able to accomplish in his/her best four-year streak, and any additional accomplishments in other seasons pad this record. On the whole, Keino comes out better than Ryun but just barely. Neither one comes close to Paavo Nurmi, Gunder Hagg, Nourredine Morceli, or Hicham El Guerrouj.

While many great milers say Ryun was the best ever, I think they're referring to him at his peak (when none of them would have wanted to race him) while ignoring the basket case he became shortly after that. It should be noted that Joe Vigil, who knows a thing or two about running, has said that Keino's performance in the 1968 Olympic 1500m was the greatest of all time (I think he was purposefully exaggerating in order to make a point).

What really irks me, though, is the attitudes surrounding this comparison. First of all, I never have seen or read of Ryun ever giving credit to Keino for beating him in 1968; he always has some excuse or mitigating factor to blame. Injuries, illness, altitude, the Kenyan teamwork, whatever. He just couldn't bring himself to say that Keino had a great race and deserved to win.

In 1968 Ryun got mononucleosis and then had hamstring problems. Both of these afflictions are severe and debilitating, and a lesser man might not have been able to battle through them. But he did, posting the fourth-best time of his life at the high altitude of Mexico City. And Kip Keino kicked his ass. The altitude undoubtedly gave Keino an advantage, but Keino posted a time that only Ryun had ever beaten; even a highlander suffers some effect at altitude (while not as much as lowlanders do) and a reasonable conclusion is that Keino's performance was more or less equivalent to Ryun's WR. Ryun's performance was probably nearly as good.

But from 1968 on, Ryun was never the same. His apologists blame the '68 mono and hamstring problems--which are a big deal. But it seems unreasonable to think those afflictions affected him more as the years went by than they did in the year he got them. I'm certain his problems were mental and not physical. In October of 1968 his unshatterable belief in himself got shattered.

What grates me even more is that most of these same people say all of the East Africans who won medals in '68 got them solely because of the altitude. This is pure ignorance. Of them, only one (amos Biwott) was a "flash in the pan" who never did anything before or since. The rest had to have been considered serious threats to win or medal no matter where the Games were held. Keino was the world's #2 miler and in the top two at 5k in each of the years 1965-67; Wilson Kiprugut and Mohamed Gammoudi had medaled in 1964; Mamo Wolde was a top track runner throughout the 60s; Naftali Temu had been the world's #1 man at 10k in '66 and '67 (with a win over Ron Clarke at the '66 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica). These men were not ready for a breakthrough in '68 because they'd already made one. The worldwide press just didn't know it.

Racism may or may not be a factor in these attitudes about the Kenyans and Ethiopians. Having spent most of my life as a minority in a black world, I generally see it when other white people don't. American exceptionalism is an ugly attitude that often gets paired up with it. I see both at work here. If you need any proof, look at the white upper-middle class American attitudes towards Billy Mills (who beat Clarke in cahmpionship competition once) and Temu (who never lost to Clarke in championship competition). If you reject this comparison out of hand, maybe you should take a good look at yourself.

I admit that I like what Keino has done with his life after track much more than what Ryun has done, but that doesn't affect how I evaluate their accomplishments. Keino has taken in and raised hundreds of children left orphans (mostly due to AIDS). Ryun, as a Congressional representative, voted to reverse Art. I, Section 9 and Art. 6 of the US Constitution. If things like that clouded my judgement I'd begin arguing that Mike Boit was a better half-miler than Seb Coe, which he clearly was not.

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