Staying on Track: Track & Field as an Instructive Metaphor for a Long-Run Approach to Political Advocacy

Humility––Restraint––Resilience: On a summer day in Munich in 1972, this rare amalgam of qualities produced a legendary Olympic victory.

Amid the quiver of nerves and the roar of the crowd, the starter raised his gun and a tense, anticipatory silence filled the stadium. The gunshot pierced the air and the lanky bodies of the men’s 800 meter finalists carved around the track with astonishing speed. Among these racers was a first-time Olympian, the American: Dave Wottle.

In the races leading up to this moment, he had taken the world by storm. Two months prior, he ran a blistering 1:44.03 to match the prevailing world record, after earning the 800m AAU title earlier that year. But seconds into the race, Wottle was already several meters behind––a noticeable gap separating him from the other seven racers. Even to the most experienced track aficionado, closing the gap between him and the last of the seven runners––let alone him and the first of them––must have seemed an impossible feat.

As the men reached the 500m mark, with less than a lap to go, roughly 40 seconds from the finish, Wottle was only just beginning to close the gap. In what became one of the most legendary finishes in track and field history, he slingshotted around the final curve to land the Olympic gold.

Though it appeared that his win was the result of a spectacular sprint to the finish line, it was in reality the opposite. While pride, nerves, and ego carried the others through the first lap at an unsustainable, breakneck pace, a combination of humility and restraint enabled Wottle to run consistent splits through the finish. What seemed to be a superhuman kick in the last 100 meters was actually Wottle maintaining a steady pace while his competitors faded.

It takes a certain amount of humility and restraint to understand that a race is not won at the start, but in the final meters before the finish line. Apply this to climate change; gun control; healthcare reform––any number of political issues, and you will see that political efficacy is the result of trials, failures, and lessons. Historical successes in civil rights and women’s rights were wrought from persistent, decades-long fights for change in legislation.

In a culture captivated by glory––where the winners are clearly delineated and results are captured instantaneously, through flashy bursts of momentum––the ‘long run’ perspective is often sidelined by momentary flurries of energy and activity. Whether it be Olympic aspirations, academic goals, or political advocacy, heady visions of glory blind us to reality: true victories on any stage––athletic, social, or political––are the product of a steady train of deliberate, well-planned efforts. This fact is lost in the whirlwind of instant gratification that holds our society so tightly in its grasp. One need only watch a televised track race to see that the cameras fixate almost solely on the frontrunner, while the rest of the field is literally obscured from our view. This sort of coverage mirrors a societal obsession with winning. We are so inundated with stories of championship that we forget what it is to lose––indeed, that losing is part of a natural course towards success.

"Real progress takes time. And if we are to take a lesson from track and field, it is this: success lies in sustained efforts rather than short bursts. Policy victories will only emerge if we are in them for the long run."

The civil rights movement occupied a period of intense mobilization from the late 1940s through the 1960s, with a history that hailed from the 17th century and extends to the current day. From the provision of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 to its realization nearly one century later, the road to civil rights was an embattled journey toward justice, riddled with setbacks, resistance, and oppression. Landmark events such as Rosa Park’s arrest, the experiences of the Little Rock Nine, the bombing of the Birmingham Church, and the march from Selma to Montgomery demonstrate that political victories are not won in an instant, but in a century-long struggle towards what is right. Continuing struggles in housing discrimination, educational inequality, and discriminatory police brutality demonstrate that inequality is still present. In these cases, social and political victories are the result of persistent struggle in the face of adversity.

Yet in a modern society consumed by instantaneous gratification, concerted efforts to change the most pressing issues of our time are often lost to buzz-words and short term bursts of activity. In his publication “Up and Down with Ecology––The ‘Issue-Attention Cycle,’” Anthony Downs, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and a prominent economist, summarized this phenomenon: emerging problems dominate the news cycle fleetingly. Issues tend to gain momentum and fade just as quickly. Downs’ theory of the issue-attention cycle is fundamentally incompatible on a temporal level with the process of developing legislation that addresses pervasive problems like gun violence and climate change.

As Federalist 51 explains, policymaking is a slow, deliberative process that requires sustained attention and effort. Though this is ostensibly a natural mechanism to preserve justice and democracy, it becomes a problem when the society in which it operates has such a short attention span that anything that does not offer the promise of instantaneous victory becomes an unworthy cause to pursue.

Climate change and gun control protests are still in their nascent stages, but the news media seems to portray these issues as losing battles. Protests occur after horrific displays of gun violence, or in response to dramatic corporate transgressions in environmental protection, but they soon fade into the background, and the end goal––legislation––slips from view. It seems that the status quo is the perpetual victor.

In this sense, the glory associated with “winning” that is so visible in the sports arena is equally as present in politics. This hyper-focused attention on winners and losers is precisely the dysfunctional train of thought that yields unproductive political rhetoric; horse race journalism and rapid news cycles are evidence enough that political discourse is centered on short-term headlines rather than substantive, long-run visions. We must refocus our paradigm.

As we enter an era dominated by climate change and gun violence, it is important to remember that protests are the first steps in a race––not the sprint to the finish line. They are the beginning of awareness and visibility for the most pressing issues of our time rather than the culmination of pent-up outbursts against endured suffering––and they should be treated as such. Rather than viewing protests as discrete events in and of themselves, they should be perceived as stepping stones along a sustained battle towards a better future. We must realize that the fight for policy outcomes must continue beyond the protests, in the face of defeat and ignorance, negligence and adversity. Real progress takes time. And if we are to take a lesson from track and field, it is this: success lies in sustained efforts rather than short bursts. Policy victories will only emerge if we are in them for the long run.

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About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at emily_skahill@brown.edu

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