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03 October 2012, 7am

What does Carl Lewis know about distance, asks Kenneth Lloyd…

A sprinter talks distance: doh!

by Kenneth Lloyd

*As a shoe company spokesperson, Carl Lewis came to London on an Olympic-related promotional tour and faced this tough question:*

Interviewer: [the shoe company that sponsors you] has put a lot of money and time into new technology, with sensors in your shoes and its “Fuelband”. Is that something you would have wanted growing up?

Lewis: Well I like it – especially now. I think it can be useful to athletes. The GPS watches – to me that is tremendous. Before athletes had to actually go measure distances. In the off-season coach would say go run 30 minutes but don’t go over a certain distance, so that’s where it would have helped.

There are so many things wrong with that answer (never mind the self-serving question) that it’s hard to know where to start. He likes it; well he would, wouldn’t he? Why “especially now”? The question was about the past, when he was growing up.

Okay, so never let the question get in the way of a good answer, But was it a good answer? I mean – since when did athletes ever measure distances? Or know anything about how they could, if they wanted to? And least of all sprinters?

So many questions, so few answers – but let’s try. GPS watches are what he seems to think allows runners to judge distance, as they can’t be trusted to know their own pace and how far they might run in 30 minutes. A distance runner might know better: they would be able to judge if, in half an hour, they had run 7, 8, or 9km. But a sprinter would probably not know if they had covered 3, 4, or 5km – and it is hardly likely to have been any more than that.

But even among distance runners that sort of instinctive feeling for pace has diminished. People do like the GPS watches and have come to rely upon them more than on their own feel for distance. A bit like not trusting yourself to do mental arithmetic and instead reach for the pocket calculator.

Many people do develop a trusting relationship with their GPS devices, so much so that they will insistently protest that a race is too long – because that’s what the GPS tells them.

Never mind that the distance has been measured by simple, transparent and accurate methods that have stood the test of time. Reading a number off a watch becomes the default mode. It works for time – why not for distance? The reason is that a wristwatch’s workings are internal, unaffected by where it is consulted, but a GPS module depends on the existence of an external network to feed it information – a network that is often of restricted availability.

So the runner receives a garbled version of reality, but because it is a number right there, staring them in the face, it assumes definitive status. In fact it is more like a tentative guess which may not be any better than that which could be hazarded by the poor confused sprinter trying to keep track of how far he might go in half an hour.

Probably not quite so useful to athletes then, after all.


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