The More Things Change

author : Scott Tinley
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By Scott Tinley

           In the absence of presence we have doubt. If you don’t see it, well…how do you know if it really happened?  Do you believe the sports scores because they are printed in the newspapers? The incredible end zone catch because it was broadcast on Sport Center? It’s fateful, in a way, that we’ve come to rely on images to explain, on commentators to construct, and in the future only pixels will persevere. We may not believe all the news, but we sure seem to believe a lot of it.

Still, when it comes to games and sports we are a doubting and sometimes cynical species. But that has always been the case—if you weren’t there bearing witness to an act then you have only the town crier, the talking head, or the blogger de jeur to rely on for veracity; the essence of history being inextricably connected to the reliability of the source.  

            History itself has been under attack of late. Perhaps due to the increasing immediacy of information, we are at best confused about what and how much to invest in what went before us. Noteworthy events have always occurred on their own time but our access to them has reached near simultaneity. If a tree falls in the forest, a cleanup crew is en route before it hits the ground. Sports scores are delivered to our smartphone before the game is over. Blame it on technology, blame it on our national ADD epidemic, blame it on Walter Cronkite; the very idea of “doing” history, of stopping to think about whom and what went before us has fallen out of favor because if you blink, you missed the chapter, and if you go on vacation the book is out of print. History appears now to be constructed in advance, upon what you have done for me tomorrow?

            Which really isn’t history, yet.

            Somehow though, real sports history has retained a toe hold within our psyche of antecedents and our consumption of days held captive in a future passed. In the evolving world of sports, we lend a curious ear to our forefathers because for reasons that elude us, many of us are interested in those dog-eared days so long as they are framed around a ball and a bat, a long arcing toss or the fastest and strongest of anything. Records are our friends because they carry extended meaning beyond the game itself.

 Perhaps sports and history are cozy bedfellows because the convenient metaphors of sport are telling of much more. To spin a familiar phrase such as “when ships were made of wood and men were made of iron” or to recall “the shot heard round the world” is to say more about the world at that period than explaining a child’s game played by grown men. As Nietzsche asked, “what is truth but a mobile army of metaphors?” Modern day president-kings are referred to as quarterbacks and football is rife with war metaphors (“he threw a bomb into the killing field”). So, the truth of old wars is the truth of old sports.

            And so it goes.  

Today’s major newspapers note such columned-snippets as “this day in sports history” and the annual days of birth (and death) of iconic players. The numbers are printed because we connect their meaning to our meaning. Consumers tuck these micro-facts away and pull them out during the every-day occurrences as they would a weekend tale or a picture of their kids. We are elevated by the comparison, buoyed, for example, by the sordid fact that we knew someone with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

And they are dead.

It’s not a matter of whimsy, regret or nostalgia as much as we realize that sporting events mark time and provide a way to measure our own athletic achievements. We hold ourselves up to the march of years by connecting the Dodger great, Sandy Koufax, to a childhood bar mitzvah, or Billy Jean King’s win over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes to a failed high school romance, or Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ black gloved-salute at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 to the first time we voted for democracy.

We remember sports history better than other histories because while they were informing they also gave us great satisfaction and depth of feeling. 

            It was with these ideas that I exhumed from a forgotten file, the first issue of Triathlon dated spring 1983.  The magazine’s cover bore a Dave Scott Ironman finish photo taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Skeeter Halger along with the prophetic, bolded type, Welcome to the Iron Age. In the upper right corner there were the words, Premiere Issue and all the men in the photo sported mustaches and tall-billed trucker’s caps.  If you were to scan the cover today in a dentist’s office chair, the nearly 27 years hence would fall away before the Novocain set in.

There are truths lurking in this moldy mag but perhaps none more significant than the old adage: the more things change, the more they remain the same. Dave Scott would go on to win four more Ironman titles in Kona, continuing to define the Iron Age over three decades even as he has surpassed the average age many men retire to a life of lethargy and metal body parts. Mustaches are back and trucker’s caps have come and gone out of style at least twice. Inside the magazine are ads for $300 steel-framed ten-speeds that are all the rage as restored campus cruiser ‘fixies’ today.

            The magazine is strewn with names and places that would be recognizable to the newcomer: the 3rd Annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, a young Scott Molina rumored to be moving to San Diego, and Speedo swimsuits advertising, well…Speedos. The inside back cover holds a Shimano ad in their launch effort to supplant the bike grouppo giant, Campagnola, with new Dura-Ace EX technology. Ironman’s first mainland event, the ill-fated Ricoh Ironman in Los Angeles, California is slated for May, 1, 1983 and a how-to column by Scott ends with this timelessly-poignant advice: “Training long hours by yourself can get very depressing.”   

             But besides Bud Light beer, there are a lot of companies that you just don’t see anymore. What happened to Raleigh Bicycles and Swim Swim Magazine and the Horny Toad Triathlon? Maybe people are more recyclable than companies. Or maybe not. Besides the handful of perennial folk, I recognized a few that are dead or in jail or both. Chip Salaun writes a race report for the Estes Alpine Classic the year before he reportedly fell into a bottomless crevasse while climbing in New Zealand after the magazine was launched. His body was never recovered. Purported financier, Jerry Dominelli, is lauded in a gossip column for his company’s sponsorship of top triathletes. Who could know that he’d spend years in prison for his orchestration of a classic Ponzzi scheme and then die a lonely death; the ill-gotten funds supporting a handful of mid 1980s elite triathletes existing as an awkward blip on the historical timeline of triathlon.

            Along with the stalwarts and spice however, are some prophetic narratives buried in the old mag’s yellowed pages. There are innovative sports nutrition ads not yet seen in period cycling or running magazines, a dictionary of triathlon words by Sally Edwards before “triathlon” could be found in the dictionary, and a race report touting the “First European International Triathlon” with its inaugural winner, a lithe and wiry lifeguard from San Diego by the name of Mark Allen. An emerging bike company named Trek is exposed along with the magazine’s anchor story on the ’83 Ironman by Mike Plant, arguably the best writer to cover the sport.  Plant writes about the dawning early light over Kailua Bay and drafting problems and athlete’s blisters. Same as it ever was. Only fresher then into the world.

             I don’t think I’m a victim of revisionism or interpretive history. My blisters have healed. The ink on my passport has dried, and I still enjoy a Bud Light after a short run. But my memory is longer and placed in perspective, I will argue the sport of triathlon at its core has changed very little. Around the edges the old silverbacks might not recognize it through the glitter and the rouge. But stripped of its three-figure entry fees and five figure bikes, when the gun goes off it’s still a bunch of crazies doing three sports for a thousand reasons. It’s comforting to tell myself this, I tell myself. Otherwise I might come to think that what’s new is really new and somehow I’m missing it.

            But that’s just the tyranny of the aged.

            There are legions of athletes, young, old, fast, slow, serious, and carefree who are ambivalent about triathlons in the summer of 2010, let alone spring 1983. But there is something about understanding the significant drive for individual autonomy that catalyzed triathlon; something about the head cases, and whack jobs and brilliant edge-seekers that reminds us of who we are. And who we might be.

           In the middle of Plant’s lyrical coverage of the Ironman is a sidebar on Claire St. Arnaud, a full-blooded Sioux Native American who at 44 years old finished the race in 14:11. Arnaud, a big man with a bigger heart, lived 50 miles from the nearest paved road and 80 miles from a swimming pool. He made his living back then as a ferrier, shoeing horses on the Santee Sioux Reservation in the middle of Nebraska. Sometimes a thing can be defined not by what it has but by what it has lost. There are faster athletes at Ironman events now, but fewer St. Arnauds.

           The philosopher, George Santanyana suggested that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. But what if we find value in those hiccups and dead end trails and massive overages of miles? What if we are very fine, thank you very much, with the screw ups and mess ups and total phaulk-ups of our lives that we follow? Is there still value in doing sports history?

           How could there not be?

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date: September 3, 2010

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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