From the Archives: The Bias of Now

When Eliud Kipchoge won the Olympic marathon in such dominating fashion, he cemented for me his status as the marathon GOAT. But someday, someone will achieve performances that cause us to once again debate who was the best. And when that time comes, we'll lean to the new guy, because of what I call the Bias of Now.

This article was written for Runner's Tribe in July of 2009. In it I make the case that to be considered the greatest you need to be able to have an "era" named after you. For example, we're currently living in The Kipchoge Era for the men's marathon.

A few other notable aspects:

  • Federer was considered the greatest in 2009. He's still playing.
  • So are Lebron James and Joey Chestnut
  • German Fernandez and Abubaker Kaki had very different careers than I anticipated
  • Long paragraphs and no sections?!

I think a lot of this article still holds up. What do you think?

The Bias of Now

It's official. Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player in history. Not one of the greats. Not the greatest of his generation. The Greatest. Ever. I know this because everyone on TV said so. Interviewers, commentators, advertisements, and even former tennis stars all seemed to agree: 15 Grand Slams was what it took. (The only person who didn't seem completely convinced was Pete Sampras, but then again he looked like he was auditioning to play Bernie at Weekend at Bernie's III.)

I don't actually dispute that Roger Federer is the greatest player ever. He's been called a Cylon, a Bionic Man, a flawless tennis domination machine with a Swiss Army Knife repertoire of shots. Okay, maybe I made those up, but you get the point. I took a look at Federer's career achievements and they are even more impressive than his ability to pull off that headband. Still, I feel a sort of cringe when I hear someone so unanimously declared the "greatest" because they took down a record.

After all, records are not made in a vacuum. It's not like Pete Sampras won 14 majors in a video game programmed to be the same for every competitor. It's not like Bjorn Borg's seven Wimbledon titles came against the likes of Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, for better or worse. Borg, Sampras and Federer have won a total of 18 Wimbledon singles titles between them. But how many would each have won if they'd played in the same era?

Records are made to be broken. But not only are they always broken, they are always broken Now. And the immediacy of such an event makes it hyper-relevant to us, and consequently renders past records that much less relevant.

I call this the Bias of Now. It's easy to watch an athlete do something that we've never seen before and get the feeling that it couldn't have been done before. Roger Federer's success is one example, but every sport has them. Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Joey Chestnut. Same thing goes for running. The day Alan Webb broke Steve Scott's AR for the mile, Scott's legacy became a little blurrier. Not fair, but it's just the way it is. Alan Webb was Now. The new Now appears to be German Fernandez.

Look at how gaga people are going--myself included, I admit--over German Fernandez. German has broken a number of records in his young career, and with each one his pedestal as the "next greatest runner" is lifted ever higher. But when you look back at those records, all we can remember is the act of his breaking them. While we live and breathe his performance, the one he surpassed has become little more than a stat on a sheet. We simply don't remember just how special those past performances were now that they aren't "the best ever". 

Check out the above video of Michael Stember setting the CA State meet record of 4:04 in the 1600m in 1996. His record held until 2001, when Ryan Hall broke it with a 4:02 performance. German then broke Hall's record in his historic state meet double in 2008. But back to Stember. Does he really look like he couldn't have broken Hall's 4:02 or German's 4:00.29 if that's what he'd been going for? Unfortunately for Stember, PRs are lousy story-tellers. Like any past great, and especially those not on YouTube, the context of their greatness continues to erode.

(As a side note, this is a big reason I love YouTube.  Whenever people talk about how great a performer Justin Timberlake is (bias of now), you can pull up a video of Michael Jackson. When people talk about Jordan Hasay (bias of now), you can show them a video of Debbie Heald (below). It's there, for all to see. It's another reason why video is the immediate future of track and field websites...because seeing something makes it more relevant than reading an account of it. The tricky part is that the commercial value of a YouTube (and even a Flotrack) often doesn't align with its social value as a means of preserving history.)

Ultimately, what I've come to believe is that there is no sound way to argue for the "greatest" in sports. Not that I haven't tried. When Ryan Hall ran 2:06:17 in the marathon it got me wondering where he would rank amongst US marathoners. I did some research and made an entire site about it [Editor's note: lost to history]. Now I look at it and feel like it doesn't account for something very important, and that is an athlete's dominance in their time. Because truth is, even if you hold all the records, someday soon it won't be Now anymore, and those records will eventually be broken too, by the new Now.

That's why, to be the greatest ever, I think you need to be able to have an "Era" named after you.  It can be event specific--The Wilson Kipketer Era--or it can be more general--The Said Aouita Era. The key point is that an individual's greatness--in terms of times and victories--must so surpass that of his contemporaries that there is no discussion of who was the best in his time.  

But--and this is where I think we miss the point when we start labeling one athlete "The Greatest"--no one athlete's Era is unequivocally superior to another. Faster times or more wins Now don't automatically make an athlete superior to those who came before him. We may be in The Federer Era today, but no matter what records he sets, it does nothing to diminish The Sampras Era, The Borg Era, or any other we might choose to define. Similarly, The Zatopek Era wasn't better or worse than The Nurmi Era, The Elliott Era, The Aouita Era, or the El Guerrouj Era.  

On the world distance running stage today, I count four legitimate Eras. We're still in The Bekele Era, which overlaps somewhat with The Gebrselassie Era (it actually caused The Gebrselassie Era to shift to the roads, where it continues today). Since Kipketer and El Guerrouj retired, there really hasn't been an era of dominance in the middle distances. On the women's side, we're in The Radcliffe Era and I would call The Defar/Dibaba Era (aka The Dibabafar Era). Their rivalry is becoming the Magic vs Bird of women's distance running; it's hard to say one athlete's name without mentioning the other.

That's it. Just four. Each is arguably the greatest distance runner in history. They have earned their places in the pantheon of running gods. And we may or may not be at the start of a few more: The Kiprop Era (seems inevitable, but it's early), The Jelimo Era (looking less inevitable of late), The Kaki Era (which is fun to say), The Galkina-Samitova Era (not so fun to say), and The Wanjiru Era (a personal favorite). 

Any of these could happen, even though odds are they won't. The only thing I would bet on is that when a new Era does occur, when records are broken and championships won, there will be no shortage of people looking to debate whether or not Great Athlete Now is better than Great Athlete Then. For me, for now, I think I'll pass on that debate.

Final Thoughts

I think I should sit down and actually outline all the "Eras" of distance running. My guess is there's been about 20 on the men's side and a little fewer on the women's.

If I were to do it, I think I'd try to keep it pretty strict. You'd have to have a run of gold medals, major marathon victories with consideration given to all-time performance lists. To truly define an era you'd need to have sustained excellence for at least 5 years. As for intangible factors, a feeling of "I just can't imagine them losing" has to play a part.

Any other considerations?