Monday, August 04, 2008

World Records: A Private Matter

Ludwig von Mises Institute article by Jim Fedako

Today was a wonderful day to break another world record. The conditions — the temperature, humidity, and wind speed — were ideal. I could not have asked for better.

A world record is an astounding feat to be sure. Moreover, as this was my 100th world record, it was special indeed — one that I will treasure the rest of my life.

Which record did I set? The 100-meter dash? The hammer throw? Not quite. I set the world record for bicycling one of the many loops in my neighborhood. Not impressed? Well, you should be. I have the record, and it is a world record. However, one nagging problem does exist: no widely recognized governing body has certified my feat. And I doubt that any will.

This, I protest, is unfair — unfortunate and unfair. I hold a record that no one else recognizes. Can you even begin to imagine my disgust with the system? Sure, some bozo runs the fastest 100-meters somewhere and the world takes note. Yet I do something similar in my neighborhood and no one cares. I am distraught.
OK. Let's step back and take a look at the situation.

For the most part, private organizations run sports, both amateur and professional. There is government involvement, to be certain, just as there is government involvement in just about every human activity, but these private organizations are able to set their own rules and bestow records as they see fit. Of course, organizations define their sport much the same as a baker defines his goods: with the consumer in mind.

Sporting bodies decide what is and isn't a world-record event, as well as the rules that an athlete must follow in order to be recognized as the holder of that record. And, as a sport adapts to its ever-changing fan base, the distances and events sometimes change as well. In addition, technological change may alter a sport for the better or, at times, for the worse. Yet any change that reduces the value of the sport in the eyes of the consumer is quickly shed by the governing body.

Some folks cry foul when they see technology result in faster times and new records. In bicycle racing, a period of new technology during the 1980s and '90s threatened to change the face of cycling — bikes were being built that looked radically different from the bikes of old. In addition, those bikes were much faster. To the technophile, the new technology was an exciting improvement. To the more traditional enthusiast, the sport was on the edge, about to become something other than man versus man on machines. It was about to become machine versus machine, with the human effort moving from grimaced pain on the road to thoughtful reflection in the lab.

The movie The Flying Scotsman details the sporting life of Graeme Obree, the Scotsman who set the world hour record (1993) — a crown jewel of bike racing — on a bike built from old bikes and the spare parts of a washing machine. This was an amazing feat, more so considering that his competitor's bike was built using the latest technology and materials.

The governing body that certifies the widely recognized hour record did not like the riding position that Obree adopted. The body changed its rules in order to disqualify Obree's bike from further competition. The technophiles shouted conspiracy! They claimed that the governing body banned the bike under pressure from bike manufacturers. Sure, that makes for good Hollywood, but the consumer runs the show (even in Hollywood). The consumers of bicycle racing wanted bikes to remain like the bikes of old.

In this instance, the traditionalists were in the majority and the widely recognized governing bodies of cycling intervened. They changed the rules of their sport to exclude radical changes to the shape of the bike. Certainly, bikes continue to improve, but bikes in the more widely recognized events look much the same as bikes did a century ago. The fans are happy and the sport lives on.

Bicycle racing settled its issue; now a similar one is brewing in the sport of swimming.

The new Speedo LZR RACER swimsuit reduces both water resistance and times. World records are being churned at an astounding pace, mostly attributed to the new swimsuit. Just as in cycling, the traditionalists are crying foul while the tech savvy and the speed deficient are cheering the advancement. Although it is too early to find resolution here, I bet that the new suit remains and becomes another part of competitive swimming. Of course, and as always, the consumer — the fans of swimming — will decide this issue according to their wants and desires.

What does any of this have to do with Liberty? Simple: sports are private activities. If someone does not think the rules are fair, he can start his own alternate governing body (of course, I cannot claim to be the Tour de France or Olympic champion due to current trademark and licensing laws). This happens all the time. In bicycling, there are governing bodies that allow the Obree bike in competitions. These organizations also crown "hour" record holders. That these "hour" records do not carry the same significance as those granted by the more widely recognized organization is not a matter of fairness; it is simply the market deciding in favor of the majority of fans (think Microsoft versus Apple).

Regardless, the free market allows competing definitions of sports to exist side by side.

Consider the alternative: a system where government decides who can lay claim to a record or the right to call oneself, for example, an engineer. In this world, competing ideas and values are replaced by the overbearing rules and regulations of the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion. All this is done in the name of fairness, equity, or the latest political ideal. A system is created where bureaucrats and elected officials decide all matters, with no recourse, legal or private.

Sure, I think it unfair that no one else recognizes my athletic feats, but I still have the ability to live outside the system. I also have the ability to try to sway the crowd that my feats exceed the feats of those competing in the more-recognized events.

This means that I can still lay claim to all of my 100 world records, with each being just as valid as any other record. You do not have to agree, which is fine. We can live in peace, with my claiming a record that you feel is meaningless. Isn't freedom wonderful?

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