Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Race We Run

This is a 400m race track.

I took it from the Internet.  It has a few key attributes.  

Namely - two straight bits on either side, and round bits at the end.  

They use the straight bits for the 100m.  

But, that’s not what I’m talking about today.  What I’m talking about today is the 400m.  

The 400m is a reasonably straightforward race.  Each runner is given a lane.  They must stay in that lane while they run.  And whoever crosses the finish line first wins.  


In fact, the only complicated thing about the 400m race is that not all the lanes are of equal length.  

You see, the 400m refers only to the inside track - the inner most lane - whilst the other lanes are slightly longer, and longer, as they go on out.  All the way to the 8th lane, right on the edge.  

This leads to something of an oddity.  In the 100m everyone lines up shoulder to shoulder - they all start from the same point, and run in exactly the same 100m lanes.  This is not the case in the 400m.  

This is what the starting line looks like in the 400m:

They stagger the start.  The person on the inside lane ostensibly starts at the back of the pack, with the person in the 8th lane starting the farthest forward.  

This is done to ensure everyone runs exactly 400m.  If the runners were to line up shoulder to shoulder only the inside lane would run 400m.  Assuming a 1.25m wide lanes the distances would break down like this (1):

Lane 1 - 400m
Lane 2 - 408m
Lane 3 - 416m
Lane 4 - 424m
Lane 5 - 431m
Lane 6 - 439m
Lane 7 - 447m
Lane 8 - 454m

The outside three lanes would end up running 10-15% further than the inside lane.  This would make a mockery of the event.  The inside lane runner would win basically every time.  Sure, occasionally you’d get someone from another lane winning, but they would have to be truly exceptional.  

It might happen at a smaller sporting event where you have people of much lower calibre.  At an event like the Olympics, however, where everyone is at peak condition, and tenths-of-a-second make all the different, the inside lane would be the only place to be.  In a tournament of people of essentially equal skill, in a race that’s meant to be fair, the inside lane would win every time.  

So they stagger the start.  Lane 2 gets to start 8m ahead.  Lane 3 gets to move 16m ahead.  Lane 8 gets to move a staggering 54m further forward.  Leaving Lane 1 all on their lonesome.  

But Lane 1 people don’t get upset when they look up from the starting block and see seven other people ostensibly in front.  

They know that, ultimately, the race is fair.  They know they’re all running the same 400m.  

They know that it will come down to talent, perseverance, and merit to see who wins.  

This approach to the 400m is affirmative action.  

It is a process of giving advantage to people who have been disadvantaged by the system, to bring them to equal pegging with the inside lane.  

People who oppose affirmative action want the 400m to be run like the 100m - with everybody starting shoulder to shoulder.  They want Lane 1 to run 400m, and Lane 8 running 454m.  They get worried when they look up from the starting block and see a Lane 8 all that way ahead - they don’t understand that that’s the only way a fair race can be run.  

It is the only way we can ensure that people truly succeed on merit.

People opposed to affirmative action want everybody starting from the same place.

People in favour of affirmative action want everybody running the same race.

A fair race.

1 -

2 - I forgot where I got the images.  if they're yours, and you are angry at me, I will replace them.