“For a sport that divides seconds into thousandths, physical contact is poorly measured. The incidence of touches, trips and tumbles is anybody’s guess. Even the rate of disqualifications for physical contact isn’t readily available. But it’s an open secret that track is a contact sport.
In sprinting, violations are easier to police, for each competitor is required to stay within his lane. And in distance running, slower paces offer the fallen a second chance, as when Finland’s Lasse Viren got up from the ground to claim the lead and gold medal in the 10,000-meter race in Munich.
But in middle distance running, physical contact is frequent, hard to police and not always accidental. A runner near the front can wreak havoc behind her by suddenly slowing down. Or “a runner gets behind you and tactically shoves you into the lead,” throwing you off pace, says Joan Hansen, a former U.S. Olympian who took a fall during the 3,000-meter run at the 1984 Olympics.”
The piece by Sara Germano and Kevin Helliker notes the 40th anniversary of American Jim Ryun’s disqualification in the preliminaries at the Munich Olympics. He was the world record holder in the 1500 metres at the time, but was hit from behind and fell with a third of the race to go. He claimed the hit was deliberate, but his appeal to be re-instated for the semi-final heats fell on deaf ears.
The contact element is even more interesting because running with the pack, and not out front alone, is a common strategy in the middle distances.