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On hatred of rabbits ...

Thoughts at a track meet

July 2006

Reasons to ban rabbits forever.
I hate rabbits.  Just a personal opinion.  They're fast runners, but I'm really turned off by the commercialization that they represent.

Now I don't hate the four-legged variety of rabbits;  they're OK in their place.  What I hate is the practice of entering phony runners ("rabbits") in track races, for the purpose of speeding up the race.  This abomination, for those who don't follow track-and-field closely, is a routine practice in professional track-and-field events, such as the preeminent Europe-based "Golden League" series of meets.  It goes like this:  The commercial sponsors of the track meet want excitement in order to boost stadium attendance and TV ratings.  And what could be more exciting than setting records?  But sometimes  – especially in the longer races –   the runners just don't run fast enough to set records, and the sponsors aren't happy.  And when the sponsors aren't happy, nobody's happy.  So, what to do to increase the speed of the races?  The sponsor hires extra runners (rabbits – specialists at shorter, faster, distances) to set a high speed by running just ahead of the field to establish the tempo the sponsors want.  The rest of the runners are required by the sponsors to follow the pace.  The rabbit will be exhausted before the finish of the race, and will drop out, leaving the real runners to finish on their own.  (Incidentally, use of the term "rabbit" comes from greyhound races, where a (simulated) piece of fur, traditionally known as a "rabbit", is mechanically pulled ahead of the dogs to encourage them to run.)

So why am I miffed about rabbits?  I mean, what's wrong with this practice?  Doesn't it result in faster times, and more records and excitement?  Sure, it results in faster times and more records.  It doesn't result in more excitement, unless your interest in the race is limited to clock-watching.  But a track race should not be a race against the clock, which the Golden League and other sponsors are trying to turn it into.  Rather, it's a race against the other competitors – the aim is simply to come in first.

What "rabbiting" really does is to move control of the race tactics from the athletes to the sponsor.  The tactical planning of the race should be (and was) a critical part of the runners' skill and preparation, and a victory would reflect not only that the winner got to the tape first, but that this was the result of good race strategy and tactics.  In planning a race, the runners study each others' strengths and weaknesses, and try to lay out a race strategy that will favor their own strengths while taking advantage of their opponents' weaknesses.  Of course their race plans run into the competing plans of their competitors, and the strategy may need to be revised underways.  Often such a "tactical" race may keep a surprisingly slow tempo during parts of the race, as the competitors measure their own plans against their opponents'.  This cat-and-mouse game is one of the most interesting aspects of watching a race, but in Golden League and elsewhere where they use rabbits it has disappeared.  The runners are not permitted by the race sponsors to set their own race tactics.  The skill of planning a race strategy, and the tactical ability to bring it about, is disappearing from the competitors, just as the appreciation of the subtleties of race strategy is waning from the fans.  Thanks to rabbits, many fans now believe that a race is just an all-out attempt to set a speed record.  What we're left with is a greatly impoverished race experience.

I grew up near the great Bislett stadium in Oslo, where I often attended track meets.  And it's not just nostalgia for the way things were when I declare that races with strategy and tactics, like those I used to go to, are infinitely more interesting than the simplified, rabbit-pulled "dog races" we're treated to these days.

So it comes down to this:  I hate rabbits.  They destroy the beauty and complexity of track competition, replacing it with an artificial, dull and simplistic race formula imposed by the sponsor for commercial ends.  Fortunately, there's one group of people who can bring the sport back to what it should be:  the fans, "voting with their feet".  Let's bring honest competition back to track.  Let's get rid of phony participants.  Let's ban rabbits!

© 2006 H. Paul Lillebo

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