This week, for the first time in what seems like a very long time, something funny happened in sports.
Not funny stupid or funny depressing – which is what we’d got used to over the past four months – but funny ha ha.
The occasion was the so-called Inspiration Games – a remote track event. Rather than bring the best athletes together in one place, competitors raced ‘head to head’ in different countries and across time zones, but simultaneously.
“It is highly demanding to organize such a broadcast,” said Karin Nussbaumer, co-ordinator of the Swiss TV group putting this thing on. So don’t say she didn’t warn you.
On Thursday, they ran the men’s 200-metre sprint. The guy to watch was Noah Lyles, a 22-year-old American you’ve probably never heard of. He is the current world champion at this distance.
Lyles jumped out to a lead. At least, it looked like that. With cameras in different countries jumping around at different angles, it was hard to tell.
The laconic British announcer didn’t seem very excited by what he was watching. But as he looked over at the finish time – 18.9 seconds – his voice jumped an octave.
“That cannot be right!” he shouted. “That cannot be right. Can it?”
Elite track athletes are intricately tuned machines. That tuning prepares them to perform at their very best on only a few specific occasions. Say, an Olympics or a world championship, while many millions watch them do it. That’s how you get a Gatorade sponsorship.
If you’re going to break an unbreakable world record, you don’t want to do it on a high-school track in Florida with a few dozen people in attendance.
That’s what Lyles had apparently done. Not just beaten Usain Bolt’s mark of 19.19, but shattered it by nearly a third of a second. At this point in athletic history, that’s like cutting a minute off the four-minute mile.
Lyles seemed to get that. You might best describe his immediate reaction as ‘hopeful confusion.’
Then things started coming apart. Lyles’s official result was changed to read “shorter distance.” The Swiss broadcaster announced that, owing to an organizational screw-up, Lyles had started from the wrong line. He’d run only 185 metres of a 200-metre race.
On the one hand, this is awful. Poor Noah Lyles. For just a moment there, he thought he’d entered the pantheon. He’d have gone into next year’s Tokyo Olympics as prime-time viewing. ‘The next Bolt’, they’d have said. ‘Greatest ever?’ some breathless commentator would’ve asked. Companies would be lining up to slap their logo on his track suit.
Lyles got to enjoy that possibility for about 30 seconds, and then it was back to reality.
Now on the other hand, no amount of money will buy you this sort of advertising. I’ll bet that yesterday, you’d never heard of Noah Lyles. He is the sort of athlete who only pops onto the global radar once every four years, if that.
Now everybody’s heard of Lyles. He’s Mr. 185 – the world-record holder at that distance (though not actually).
Lyles did himself an enormous favour by reacting to this botch job with sly humour: “You can’t be playing with my emotions like this …” he wrote on Twitter.
Through no particular fault of his own, Lyles may now be the most famous sprinter at work. Who among us will not be rooting for him next year?
And on the third hand (just roll with it), this is hilarious. Hilarious because we can all imagine ourselves in this situation. One way or another, this has happened to every one of us, though perhaps not on television.
Sports have no purpose unless they can occasionally provide us with these sorts of exaggerated life lessons. This is the space between the agony and the ecstasy – the random event, its cosmic unfairness, and all the weird ways in which people can be thwarted.
Those moments had gone away temporarily. First, when COVID-19 put an end to sports altogether. Second, when sports began to return and all we could talk about was how many people they might end up killing.
For a while now, sports have been a total drag. Whether it’s Major League Baseball attempting to shoot off both its feet, Novak Djokovic doing his Dr. Nick Riviera impression or DeSean Jackson quoting Hitler (and somehow managing to get it wrong on more than one level), sports have been plenty funny. Just not fun funny. Shake-your-head funny.
This is what begins to happen when sports are decoupled from the playing of games. It suddenly becomes clear that this isn’t just a business, but a particularly rapacious one; and that the people involved in it aren’t necessarily that bright.
However, used as they all are to talking all the time and being listened to whenever they do so, they can’t help but keep talking. About anything. Give them a topic and, whether they understand anything about it, they’ll keep going.
This doesn’t make the pros awful in any unique way, or even awful at all. This is just what happens when you put celebrity in a vacuum. It attempts to fill it, often mindlessly.
By the low standards of today, the result of that experiment is newsworthy. It’s just not the sort of news that results in joy or edification.
This is why the strange case of Noah Lyles’s world-record-that-wasn’t-to-be is notable. We’re not yet out of our troubles, but we have come far enough that we can afford to laugh at something that is, ultimately, trivial. It’s a human moment we can all agree is sad, ridiculous and goofy all at the same time.
Imagine being the guy who told Lyles where to line up? Because that guy is all of us. I salute his (mostly harmless) incompetence.
Maybe this is a very small watershed in the return to normalcy. Because we’ll know the worst is over when it isn’t worth the front page, and good news is news again.
Moreso than at any time in recent history, it feels like everything matters right now. Matters in a way that can become too heavy to bear.
Noah Lyles’s very bad day at the track doesn’t matter. But it is a relief nonetheless.