There are few walks of life where you can be humiliated as brutally as in sport, where failure can be so clear cut and black and white. I found this out to my cost over the weekend when attending the Isle of Man Running Festival, a student-organised event in which three races are held on successive days.
It was all going so well for the opening mile or so of the first race, a 10 kilometres jaunt along the coastline, as I set off in the pack at a pace which seemed comfortable. Unfortunately, however, three years of barely training means that paces which used to feel easy are now far too ambitious. About the same time I realised I had gone off way too quick and was going to suffer, we turned around and ran uphill into the wind and I was reduced to a panting, wheezing mess.
As I hobbled down the home straight what felt like several hours later I was overtaken by three men running together as the Loch Ness Monster – to the delight of my watching friends – and I knew it had been a bad idea. The next two runs, one of which was a fell-race up a huge hill which made you feel queasy just to look at, was similarly horrendous, hardly helped by more enthusiastic participation in the main activity of the weekend – drinking and partying.
At least I didn’t deserve to do anything other than fail miserably. When you fall short in something you have dedicated months and years preparing for, it is one hundred times worse, particularly when it is live on television with millions of people watching. This is the fate that befell the Cambridge University Women’s team in yesterday’s Boat Race on the River Thames, when, they came within seconds of sinking as their boat filled with water in conditions described afterwards as “absolutely biblical”.
A red flag was raised by umpires, but Cambridge refused to stop and battled on as water rose to their thighs before reaching calmer waters and eventually crossing the line 71 seconds behind the triumphant Oxford crew.
But, where you have failure you also have success, and the race was extraordinary for the bold tactics of the winning cox, Morgan Baynham-Williams. With waves slamming ominously against both boats, she opted to steer almost 90 degrees for the calmer water of the North Bank, realising correctly that the time lost deviating from her path would pay-off in the long run.
Cambridge kept going on the same line, and suffered the consequences. “They are going through hell and high water,” cried the BBC commentator. “Quite literally.”
Tactics are, obviously, a key part of any sporting event. Knowing not to go off too fast in a 10km race, for instance, particularly if you are woefully unfit. But there are some instances where, like Baynham-Williams, an athlete has successfully adopted an unorthodox and audacious strategy.
Another boat sport provides one of the best examples, in the form of sailor Ben Ainslie when winning laser gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Ainslie, who had agonisingly missed out on gold as a teenager to Brazilian Robert Scheidt four years earlier in Atlanta, needed to finish 10 places ahead of the same opponent in the final race of the series, or hope Scheidt finished lower than 21st, in order to snatch an unlikely gold.
Instead of sailing normally, Ainslie pinned his rival at the back of the fleet as the two drifted far behind all the other boats. Scheidt, trapped, eventually attempted a rash overtake, resulting in him being disqualified from the race and Ainslie pipping him to the top spot on the podium.
Effigies were burned of the Briton in Brazil, but the tactic has now become the norm in Olympic sailing.
Ainslie, later to become Sir Ben, was not the only sporting knight of the realm to have adopted unorthodox strategies. Cycling contemporary Sir Bradley Wiggins cleverly calculated that, when taking on more explosive climbers in the steepest mountains of stage races, he was battling so hard to stay with them to the extent that he would eventually hit the “red zone” and lose touch completely.
It would therefore be better, he calculated, to sit back and maintain his own pace as he would end up losing only 30 seconds rather than two minutes, a time he could easily make up in time trials. This was his strategy throughout his superb 2012 season, where he won the Tour de France and Olympic time trial double as well as virtually every other stage race he competed in.
Cricket’s WorldTwenty20 bonanza currently ongoing in India is another opportunity for outrageous tactics.
The event, an explosive shortened form of the game more akin to a rock concert than the classical ballet of a five-day Test match, has inspired all manner of ridiculous shots and bowling strategies. Perhaps the most bizarre came in a match between Australia and Pakistan in Mohali on Friday (March 25).
- By Nick Butler
- Republished with permission insidethegames.biz