Did the winner lose? Or did the loser win?

“There were over 20,000 competitors in Sunday’s Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco,” wrote C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle last Oct. 21. “And 24-year-old Arien O’Connell, a fifth-grade teacher from New York City, ran the fastest time of any of the women.

“But….. she didn’t win.”

She did not win? And she had the quickest time? How can that be?

This story is controversial, funny, thought-provoking. Here’s what happened: In the marathon, Arien O’Connell did not run with the so-called “elite” group (those considered the fastest… who are placed at the front of the starting line). And so, with over 20,000 participants, O’Connell stayed at the back of the starting pack and ran 20 minutes after the elite group left.

At the finish line three hours later, three female marathoners (not O’Connell) finished 1-2-3. So they’re the top three finishers, right?

Not so fast. For here’s an important reminder in big marathons: Each runner is given a chip and is asked to attach that to her running shoes. And since 20,000 runners can’t all start at the same time, then each runner’s time begins when she passes the starting line—and ends when she steps on the finishing line. That’s called fair.

But here’s what’s complicated… Continued the San Francisco Chronicle article: “O’Connell, who describes herself as ‘a pretty good runner,’ had never managed to break three hours in five previous marathons. But as soon as she started at 7 a.m. Sunday, she knew it was her day. In fact, when she crossed the finish line 26.2 miles later, her time of 2:55:11 was so unexpectedly fast that she burst into tears.

“’I ran my best time by like 12 minutes, which is insane,’ she said.

“At the awards ceremony, the O’Connell clan looked on as the top times were announced and the ‘elite’ female runners stepped forward to accept their trophies.

“’They called out the third-place time and I thought, ‘I was faster than that,’’ she said. ‘Then they called out the second-place time and I was faster than that. And then they called out the first-place time (3:06), and I said, ‘Heck, I’m faster than her first-place time, too.’’

“Just to make sure, O’Connell strolled over to a results station and asked a race official to call up her time on the computer. There it was, some 11 minutes faster than the official winner.”

I repeat: Arien O’Connell clocked 2:55:11 versus the 3:06 of the first-placer. But O’Connell didn’t cross the finish line first. So, who won?

For the race officials, they declared that it wasn’t O’Connell. Why?

“If you’re feeling like you’re going to be a leader, you should be in the elite pack,” race producer Dan Hirsch told her. Jim Estes, associate director of USA Track and Field, agrees, saying, “The theory is that, because they had separate starts, they weren’t in the same race. The woman who is winning the elite field doesn’t have the opportunity to know she was racing someone else.” Fair point.

O’Connell countered by saying that she didn’t join the elite group because she did not expect to run that fast. Fair answer.

In the meantime, as days passed after that marathon, the Nike organizers were inundated with complaints speaking in behalf of O’Connell.

Jon Hendershott, the associate editor of Track and Field News magazine, said that O’Connell ran the fastest and should have won. “What’s she supposed to do, lay back because she’s not an elite runner?” he asked. “If the elites are going to lay back, that’s their fault.”

O’Connell, in all this controversy, was not bitter, saying she enjoyed her San Francisco stay and was happy to record her fastest time ever. Still, her fellow runners, the bloggers and the media thought it unfair.

Which makes for an intriguing debate: Who’s the rightful winner? The woman who clocked the fastest time? Or the lady who crossed the finish line first?

4 thoughts on “Did the winner lose? Or did the loser win?

  1. A similar situation happen @ the Chicago Marathon http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/chi-081012-wesley-koirr-chicago-marathon,0,36016.story

    Again based on the timing chip Wesley Korir had the fourth fastest time, but since he did not race with the elites he was not awarded the fourth place prize money of $15,000 (ouch!).

    Nike is declaring Arien “a” winner but still not “the” winner of the race. Oh well, at least she will get the same prize and recognition as the elite 1st place finisher.

  2. Hi Cerrone! Yes, that “a” versus “the” makes a difference. The interesting thing is, this scenario can happen again. The challenging part is running (unlike golf with its handicap system, for example) is difficult to “handicap” (meaning divide the elite vs. non-elite). Thanks

  3. Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to get pick to run the NYC Marathon. We will try again next year though.

    However, me and lence have already registered for 2 Half Ironman’s in 2009. It will be interesting because we will also be competing with 2 other Filipinos brothers in NJ and NY area.

    Regards!

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