In my recent travels I was attempting to maneuver around another large U.S. city when I came upon something not that out of the ordinary: traffic. As I sat in what resembled a parking lot, two lanes of traffic backed up for as far as the eye could see, I wondered about what was going on up in front. Looking in my rearview mirror I saw a similar line going the other direction and I was thankful that I was at least not at the rear of this conga line. Traveling between “stopped” and five miles per hour, my mind began to wander. I started daydreaming about ABC’s Wild World of Sports.
In the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, ABC’s Wild World of Sports was the place to go for any sporting event that mattered. At this point ESPN was still in its infancy and most people weren’t tuned in to kick boxing, motocross, ping-pong and other dynamic sporting venues. On Saturday afternoons came “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”; the agony portrayed rather nicely by ski jumper Vinko Bogataj wiping out at the bottom of the ramp; this sequence living in infamy every Saturday afternoon, year in and year out. It hurt to watch him bounce helplessly off the frozen turf, like a rag doll thrown to the ground, and amazingly he wasn’t seriously hurt.
Over the years I saw great boxing matches featuring some of the best boxers in history; Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearnes, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran. Some of the bouts are etched in my mind and will be forever remembered. Foreman knocking Frazier to the canvas six times in the first two rounds was something to see, the tough and proud Frazier overmatched on this day and seemingly helpless; the match ending in a knockout. If you love boxing, I would recommend going to You Tube and looking up the Hearnes vs. Hagler match. Round after round these two men let the punches fly and the excitement was non-stop. Leonard and Duran had some classic matches, the “no mas” rematch probably the least exciting.
As in boxing, there were great tennis battles played out on the small screen on many Saturday afternoons. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova gave us some of the best tennis matches ever played. ABC’s producers did a great job of pitting not only the best players against one another each week, but the personality conflicts were at times bigger than the game itself. It made for great drama.
I also recall track and field being a frequently repeated event. The sprints were exciting, as were the pole vault, high jump and relays. I even watched the long distance events and remember the excitement of anticipating the four-minute mile being eclipsed. I noticed something odd in the long distance events; they had in each event a runner who was designated as the pace setter, often referred to as the “rabbit”. Their job was to get out in front of the pack and make sure that the race didn’t bog down into a slow, push and shove to the finish affair. The producers wanted a fast race, hoping for a new record to be set. They also loved a good rivalry and the rematch between the barefoot Zola Budd and Mary Decker Slaney drew a large viewing audience. (In their previous encounter, Zola had inadvertently stepped on Slaney’s heel in the middle of a tense and close race, causing her to fall and roll around on the ground, screaming in pain and agony, most of the tears due to disappointment at being beaten.)
The rabbit had no chance of winning the race, and I often wondered how he was picked. An official approaches runner number 32 and pulls him aside before the race and says, “Bradley, we want you to be the “rabbit” in today’s race.” Bradley sheepishly answers, “Am I that slow? I thought I might have a chance in today’s race.” The official doesn’t pull any punches and answers, “Well, your best time this year, or any year, was four minutes and twelve seconds, and there are five other men in this race who have gone under four minutes this year.” Bradley walks away defeated but takes solace in the fact that at least in the first lap or two of the race he will be in the lead. (There is also a rabbit in dog racing that sets the pace for the Greyhounds to follow. Hmmm. Bugs Bunny would find this correlation humorous.)
I notice that the traffic is beginning to move, my thoughts jolted back to my current dilemma, and see that we are now cruising along at ten miles per hour, but it’s short lived and we decelerate back to parking lot speed once again. My mind goes back to the Wild World of Sports. This time, maybe it’s all the cars stacked up in front of me, I think of all the racing events featured on the show over the years. Interestingly, I recall that in Indy racing as in track and field, there is also a pace setter, called the pace car. Unlike long distance running events, the pace car is not the “rabbit”, but instead serves as the “turtle”. The pace car is not in the actual race and is placed in front of the remaining race cars in order to create a rolling start rather than a standing start; the idea being that a rolling start is much safer. The actual race cars are stacked up behind the “turtle”, just waiting for him to get out-of-the-way so they can floor it and battle for the checkered flag. While the pace car is leading the remainder of the cars around the track, it reminds me of a traffic jam on the interstate, cars backed up for seemingly no reason.
As my focus returns to the traffic in front of me, I grow frustrated at what lies ahead. I just want to know what’s going on up there. Why are we not moving? What’s the hold up? Did you ever notice that when everything finally returns to normal, and the traffic begins to flow once again, upon getting to the place where the traffic jam originated there is never any indication as to the reason for the backup? Anyway, I finally come to the conclusion that a couple of old beater cars have been designated as the pace cars in today’s event and have been told to go no faster than five miles per hour, leading the remainder of us to grow more impatient by the minute. Eventually, after a forty-five minute delay, the two pace cars exit the interstate and the rest of us hit the gas, hoping to be the first car across the finish line as we zoom around the city. My desire is always to be the rabbit and leave the rest pursuing me.