One of the silliest and most pointless conversations we have in sports is whether an athlete is sufficiently "clutch." The stupidity of it does not stop it from being the loudest and most frequent debate on talk radio, in fact, its loudness is likely a method commentators have adopted to compensate for its utter nonsense. One only has to go back through Skip Bayless' oeuvre at ESPN's First Take to hear this debate thousands of times. In 2011, LeBron James alway would shrink away from the pressure of the big moment, passing the ball to his glorified D-League cast of teammates. A-Rod can't hit in the postseason. Payton Manning can only win in domes in the regular season; under the bright lights and harsh weather of the playoffs, he wilts.
The problem with these conversations--and a problem in sports media more generally--is that these things are only true until they aren't. Those previous statements have since been revealed as the mindless ratings-grabbing table-pounding that they always were after LeBron won multiple championships and nearly took the Cavs minus Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to a title last year, A-Rod carried the 2009 Yankees to a World Series, and Payton Manning became the symbol for big-game quarterbacking, even without an arm. These previous claims of choking are never revisited or reevaluated for where they went astray. To do so would either trap the talking heads in a paralyzing cycle of uncertainty or, worse, reveal them for the red-faced yelling morons they have always been.
Instead, we just move on. Manning, LeBron, and A-Rod are now clutch. Never mind what we said last week, that's not live. What we're saying now, in this precise moment in time, is all that matters. Don't even try to bring up the past, we're yelling too loud now for you to hear it.
In a much less glamorized way, these debates haunt track and field as well. In fact, due to the lack of sample size and infrequency of championship races, the notions of whether an athlete possesses a clutch gene are even more insidious here. We had them with Alan Webb, who presumably could only run fast in rabbited races. Let's just forget that he's the fastest American in the mile of all feaking time and that he won not one, but two, USA Championships in the 1500m during his peak. Same with Justin Gatlin. He has five individual gold medals in world championship competition, but after he lost twice to Usain Bolt this summer in Beijing, they disappeared from the public memory--revoked by the insipid label of being unclutch.
The facts of Gatlin and Webb's success don't fit our narratives of their careers, or, more precisely, their mental states. So what do we do? We pretend they never happened. Facts only serve the narratives we construct and the words we yell to whoever is listening--which, by they way, is no one. We pick those that fit and either ignore or completely forget those that run counter to our arguments. Everything is simpler that way, where facts perfectly align with our current positions and the world is all black or all white. We have to whisper and mumble when it's gray.
Last week, Chris Solinsky announced his retirement at age 31 after years of nagging injuries. The announcement was more a formality than revelatory. He hasn't raced since 2013, and even then, wasn't quite himself, running a 3:42 1500 and a 13:23 5k. Both were far cries from his best days of 2010 and 2011.
We bend the facts to fit our perceptions and ideological commitments and Solinsky's career is a fun exercise in such manipulation. On the one hand, Solinsky is a 5-time NCAA National Champion and 14-time All-American at Wisconsin. He also once held the American record in the 10000m and was the first American ever to break 27 minutes in the event. He retires as the second fastest American ever in the 10000m (behind Galen Rupp) and the 5000m (behind Bernard Lagat).
He did this all in by not "looking like" a runner at all. At 6'1", 165 lbs, Solinsky wasn't close to what you would draw up if asked in 2009 to imagine the first American to break 27:00 for the 10k. He and Galen Rupp are the only two runners born outside of Africa in history to break 13 in the 5000m and 27 in the 10000m. He's the only person over 6 feet tall to ever break 27 in the 10k. Superlatives define Solinsky's career, but somehow, there weren't enough of them for some.
If it's possible for the tallest man on the track in just about any race he was ever in to fly under the radar, Solinsky managed it. He never made an Olympic team and never won a US Championship. These are two facts about him, and for some, they are the only two that matter. Never mind that his peak only coincided with one Olympic cycle (2012) or that he only competed in three US Championship races. The context of the facts is meaningless.
Chris Solinsky's career is a testament to the under appreciated role timing and fortune play in distance running. The competitive window for an elite athlete--non-Lagat/Keflezigh division--is short. He missed the 2008 Olympic window because he was in college, so the 2012 Trials were his only real chance to make a team before injuries and age caught up.
When talking about Solinsky, we each choose our facts and pretend those we didn't choose either don't exist or are attributable to luck. In the latter case, we fail to consider that the facts we do choose are equally susceptible to good or bad fortune. Solinsky was either the greatest collegiate and American distance runner of his era or a colossal failure and choke artist. In reality, he's either both, neither, or something between the two.
Those nuances and possibilities are inconvenient because considering them makes us stop our shouting for a moment and realize how much we don't know. There's a possible world not far from our own in which Solinsky was injured for his 2010 run, but healthy and fit enough to win gold in London in 2012. Timing is everything in running. A popular racing axiom holds that a runner has only one chance to lead a race. Lead too early and you won't lead at the end. For Solinsky, he only had one chance to be the best distance runner in America. That lead came in a year, 2010, in which there were no Olympics or outdoor World Championships. Make of that what you will or don't make anything of it at all. Sports commentary has been built on arbitrary selection of endpoints for all of history. It will be the same for Solinsky.