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Saying Goodbye to the Greats: The Week That Was

In the last two weeks, we’ve seen the last track races of two great and different careers.

Athletics - Olympics: Day 15 Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The question of why we watch sports has been a think-piece rich topic from Roland Barthes’ exploration of the mythology of professional wrestling to the NFL’s insistence that it’s all for the troops. The question is simultaneously fruitful and incredibly fruitless because watching sports is something done by an individual, and as such is an individual experience. For some it’s purely vicarious. For others it’s the only way medium through which they can let out their anger about the world. For some, it’s just entertainment and spectacle.

Perhaps an under explored reason for society’s fascination with sports and athletics has to do with the accelerated cycle of time that is operates under. We all live long enough to see the beginning and end of athletes careers. We’re there for their birth, they’re early struggles, the stage where they figure it all out, their painful decline, and lastly, their retirement, or death, as athletes. This is an experience we don’t often have with people we know. Even with those we know best, we’re never there for the entire life cycle. We meet our spouses later in life and, though we might see them die before us, we were not present at or near there birth, in most cases. Tragic cases aside, the opposite is true of our children. We see them born and are there in some capacity as they mature, but the entire point is that we will die before they do. In sports, unlike in many other walks of life, we can be there for it all.

Sigmund Freud famously posited that humans have a drive toward death and self-destruction. He wasn’t referring to an abstract interest or fascination, but rather our own behavior. Still, memento mori has been a common literary trope at least since the time of Homer, so a fascination with death is clearly a part of the human experience. Just turn on the five o’clock news and you’ll soon recognize how captivating we find death and destruction.

Distance runners operate on a slower clock than, say, NFL running backs. While a running back’s life cycle may only be five NFL seasons, a distance runner can make a solid career span close to two decades. Enter Bernard Lagat and Paul Koech. Both rose to prominence as distance runners in Kenya in the early 2000s and, up until less than a week ago, continued their careers at the highest level of competition.

Now sure, it’s easier for a runner to continue to hang on in the professional circuit than it is for a beaten up Barry Sanders if for no other reason than the fact that Lagat can just enter himself in meets while Sanders has to convince one of 32 NFL team’s his withering body is worth their investment. In this case, though, it’s true that Lagat and Koech have been real performers at the highest level. For a minute or two, Lagat even had an Olympic bronze medal to call his own in Rio.

When we talk about the greatness of athletes we end up discussing three things: peak performance, longevity, and championship performance. How you weight the three when evaluating an athlete is a matter of taste, but, they’re usually all considered. In terms of both peak performance and longevity, both Lagat and Koech come out strong.

There’s one reason Koech and Lagat won’t receive much talk of being the greatest of their generation—they raced alongside others who won the championships. When Lagat began his career, he had to contend with Hicham El Guerrouj, the world record holder in the 1500m. That Lagat didn’t win his first world gold medal until 2007 is, quite honestly, no fault of his own. Finishing second to a transcendent runner like El Guerrouj is nothing to be ashamed of. When Lagat moved up to 5000m, he encountered another runner in the conversation for greatest of all time: Mo Farah.

Similarly, Koech found himself running concurrently with one of the best championship racers in the steeplechase of all time: Ezekiel Kemboi. Kemboi has never run as fast as Koech, but this is where championship performance matters. Koech has a perception as a choker. Here are his finishes at world championships and Olympics, bearing in mind he is the third fastest man to ever grace the event: 3rd, 7th, 4th. One medal on the world stage for one of the fastest to ever run doesn’t quite add up, which is why Kemboi’s postponed retirement will receive more attention than this. Just try googling Paul Koech retirement. It’s barren.

I’ve now talked enough about Paul Koech, so I’m going to talk about Lagat for the remainder.

Lagat’s career is much like out own are likely to be. He started out doing one thing—the 1500m—and had a lot of success there. He’s unseated the Chairman of the Boards, he won gold medals, he made faces, and his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets hundreds of times. But, eventually, he got phased out of the 1500m by guys who just had a little more youth, speed, and energy than he had left. So, he found another way to contribute. He moved up in distance to the 5000 and the 10000m because, well, why not.

It turns out that Lagat was pretty good at those too. He’s made three Olympic 5000m finals and finished in the top two in three World Championships at the distance. Lifelong learning, acquisition of new skills, keeping up with the global marketplace. Lagat has done all that.

Time just hasn’t caught up to him. You can take a skeptical approach to it if you want and point to his positive A sample from 2003 and ignore that the B sample came back negative or just the fact that he’s old and that no one has done what he’s done at this age. That’s evidence of some sort, for sure, but not the sort of evidence that carries a burden of proof.

What’s crazy about Bernard Lagat is that one of his best, or at least most astounding performances was one of his last. In the finals of the 5000m at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Lagat broke the likes of Galen Rupp, Olympic Silver Medalist Paul Chelimo, and others with a 52-second last lap. It sent the Eugene the crowd into a tizzy, and for good reason. He had just become the oldest Olympian on the U.S. team. This was all a mere 14 minutes after he was blowing kisses to babies in the crowd and just second before he went for a victory lap with his own offspring in tow. Not even 40 years on this earth could soften the blow of a Lagat kick.

But, now, over 15 years after Lagat ran the fastest 1500m of his career, he is done with the track. He hasn’t just been hanging on collecting checks since that time. He was one spot out of a medal in Rio, so close to a medal that he had one for a couple seconds there. He says he’s concentrating on the roads, and, at nearly 42-years old, time will eventually catch up to him. But, who’s to really say. Maybe this is just the next move in an inexplicably long career. He’s the same age as guys like El Guerrouj who we haven’t heard from in over a decade. Will he be on the U.S. Marathon team in in Tokyo in 2020? Probably not, but I’m not going to be putting money on it.

Sports remind us, in accelerated fashion, of the path we all walk between birth and death. Lagat has taught us that death, while inevitable, isn’t something we have to face without fighting back a little bit.