28 years ago today, the world was introduced to Seinfeld. (Okay. Technically the pilot episode was branded as The Seinfeld Chronicles but whatever who cares.) I trust if you’re reading this sentence that you don’t need a primer on the show that’s been called by some the greatest television show of all time, so I’ll jump right ahead to defending this post’s admittedly ambitious thesis statement/title: “How the Seinfeld-Meyer rematch could have been a boon to track & field.”
The tenth episode of Seinfeld’s sixth season is simply entitled “The Race.”
The general premise is that Jerry–and his Superman infatuation–dates a woman named Lois–as in Lois Lane–which pleases him tremendously. But as with all of Jerry’s romantic interests, there’s a catch: Lois is employed by Jerry’s old schoolyard rival, Duncan Meyer. This is of great concern to Jerry, as in ninth-grade, he and Duncan once raced in front of the whole school. Jerry false-started, nobody noticed and he went on to win. He was also subsequently regarded as a faster runner than Meyer. Jerry worries that Meyer–upon discovering who his employee is dating–will out Jerry as a cheater, who is not in fact that fast, ruining Lois’s perception of him.
A ton of hilarious inane bullshit transpires and the episode concludes with the two grown men staging a highly publicized rematch on the streets of Upper Manhattan, as shown below:
Now, during the show’s sixth season, each episode drew on average about 30 million Americans to their televisions to tune in.
For comparison, the opening ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics reportedly drew just shy of 40 million viewers. It’s hard to imagine any individual event from those games amassing a comparatively large viewership. Even the 100-meter dash–easily the most likely track event to draw “normie” viewers–probably couldn’t claim to have that many sets of eyes watching from afar.
So it’s not unreasonable to suggest that during the 1990s, Seinfeld v. Meyer was likely the most-watched footrace in America.
Now, time for a quick tangent.
People like to turn to NASCAR or big horse races as examples of how racing-based sports can reach mainstream audiences. These people cite the presence of booze and gambling at these sorts of events as examples track ought to follow. But that’s a pretty dumb idea and not that intellectually honest of a comparison.
The culture surrounding NASCAR events is inextricably linked with getting tanked and partying in a lively setting where there’s an implicit undercurrent of hoping for a car accident. Similarly, horse racing’s history is one of the aristocracy getting trashed and gambling while dressed to the southern, hat-donning nines.
Track has reached maturity already. Cramming elements of more popular activities into it is a ship that’s already sailed.
What track instead needs to bank on, is the human performance element.
Our sport falls on the opposite end of the fight-or-flight continuum as MMA, which inherently is huge on human performance and is wildly popular. If you’ve ever been punched in the face before, you know it fucking hurts. And you also know the person who rocked you wasn’t training to hit you in the face, so when you see a fighter take a right hook from another professional fighter and go down like a sack of potatoes, you understand how primal and brutal and awful that felt.
The way track is packaged on television, it lacks context. You probably assume the athletes are running fast or jumping high or throwing far, but unless the camera is right there track side to capture the sweat pouring off the pack of a 10,000m blood bath, or somehow doing that Happy Gilmore thing where the vantage point is actually the item hurling through the air in the shot put, the average consumer of sports isn’t going to care. People aren’t naturally impressed by running. Running has to prove to spectators that it is hard and awful to do and earn their respect.
Now back to Seinfeld.
In the months following the debut of “The Race,” every track and field meet director in the country should have put out an open call for random civilians with a grudge against another random civilian–in a sense, dig up actual Seinfeld-Meyer scenarios.
Put real life enemies in exhibition races and loudly proclaim for all spectators present just what’s the nature of the beef. Force fans to choose sides. Get them engaged. Reenact the old schoolyard races where flight serves as a stand-in for fight. Then capture the victor’s time before announcing the elite field of the 100-meter dash. Fans can then see just how slow the average person is compared to elite athletes. Force spectators to care and appreciate the level of talent on display.