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Original Issue


Sometimes it doesn't pay to be nice. Sometimes nice guys do finish last. Consider the following incident.

It was the 3,000-meter race in the Portland, Ore. high school track finals last spring. Sixteen runners were entered in the race; the first two finishers would qualify for the state finals the next weekend in Eugene. The favorite was Donnie McGovern, a senior from Grant High. He had finished fifth in the state as a junior. His coach described him as a competitive tiger.

Coming into the last 300 meters of the race, McGovern was stride-for-stride with David Kays, a senior from Franklin High. They were 40 meters ahead of the rest of the pack and shoe-ins for the state finals.

For Kays, a trip to Eugene was going to be somewhat of a surprise. He had struggled during the season, missing several meets because of illness and conflicting obligations to drama and band. He was running the fastest race of his life.

Heading into the last turn, McGovern looked over at Kays. The two boys had been competing against each other for four years, and had developed a friendly rivalry. McGovern felt sure that if he kicked it into high gear, he could smoke his opponent down the homestretch.

"Do you want to tie?" he asked Kays.

"Sure," replied Kays. It seemed to him like a fair thing to do. They were both going to qualify, regardless of who won, so there didn't have to be a winner.

"Let's do it," McGovern said, holding out his hand. The two boys clasped hands and ran down the last part of the straightaway, arms raised triumphantly overhead. They crossed the finish line dead even. The crowd cheered.

But faster than they could say hello, Eugene, a meet official came over to tell them, "You are both disqualified."

Section 5, Article 6, Part D of the 1982 track and field rule book of the National Federation of State High School Associations deals with disqualification. It states, "It is an unfair act when: (D) Contestants join hands or grasp each other at any time during a race."

There it was in black and white—if you hold hands with another runner, kiss your four years of training goodby.

Kays and McGovern argued their case. They said they didn't do it to block another runner: nobody was even close. It was simply a gesture of sportsmanship. Winning just wasn't all that important.

The boys' coaches, figuring it was no use, did not file a protest. "A rule's a rule." said Kays's coach. Jon Abraham. "We live in a nation of rules." said McGovern's coach Mark Cotton. Meet officials summarily dismissed the boys' pleas.

Instead of going to the finals, the boys were going home. The third-and fourth-place finishers were going in their place. The incident raised some interesting questions.

For instance, when, if ever, should there be an exception to a rule? In this case, there was a precedent for an exception. In 1978, at the Nike-Oregon Track Club marathon in Eugene, Tony Sandoval and Jeff Wells crossed the finish line holding hands. Blocking another runner is against the rules, but here the intentional tie that harmed no one was allowed.

The rule as intended is a good one, put in the books to keep teammates from locking arms to prevent an opponent from passing them. But clearly, that was not the intention of McGovern and Kays.

A second, and possibly more important, question is, what lesson did the incident teach these two young men?

"I learned that you might as well be competitive," said Kays.

"Well," said McGovern. "I learned not to do it again. I would like to have had the decision changed, but I didn't know how to go about it."

The biggest crime here wasn't the fact that the boys were ruled out of the state finals. It was that they probably learned nothing about how to light a perceived injustice. It's fine to be a competitive tiger on the track, but don't try to fight the bureaucratic beast.

The coaches and meet officials involved, all of them caring, dedicated educators, said in essence, "Sorry, boys, but there's nothing we can do about it."

But that was the wrong answer. Rules and laws are changed and amended all the time. That's one of the perks of living in this country. Sitting back and taking it on the chin shouldn't have been the reward for McGovern and Kays. Nice guys shouldn't have to finish last.