The death of the first man to break the 4-minute mile brought to mind how the metric system ruined high school and college track and field for thousands of fans like myself. Why is that important? No matter what the bureaucrats say, having fans at a high school or college sporting event is more important than being politically correct. It's the real reason why multi-millionaire, football, basketball and baseball players try play one more season. It has nothing to do with money - it is all about playing in front of a stadium full of screaming fans.
I ran cross country at a time when it was OK - but not cool. At Royal Oak Dondero High School the most fans we ever had were football players just finishing practice who would often "quack" in unison as we finished our practice drills running one behind each other like baby ducklings following a mother duck. But during track season we had our vengeance, The 100 yard dash and mile run actually drew fans – thanks to pro football players making the dash important every Sunday and Roger Bannister's iconic event of breaking the 4-minute mile barrier by running a 3:59 mile on March 12, 1954. Now except for parents, there doesn't seem to be the same interest in track and field at the high school level.
The closest any one came to running a sub-4 minute mile on our high school track in the 1960s was 4 minutes and 12 seconds. Yet, thanks to the legendary Roger Bannister's book "Breaking THE BARRIER, even the casual track fan knew that 4:12 was very close to world class. The fans could also use that time to relate to the quarter and half mile races. How many average fans of today know the good high school and college times for the 800 meters or the 1600 meters ? Maybe a few hard core fans. But Interesting enough, in "Metric-Europe", the mile is still one of the glamour races and is often saved for the last event. Even fans with metrics as part of their lifestyle can related to a sub-four minute mile.
St. Johns Michigan is twenty miles south of the state capitol of Lansing. In July of 1975 the following sign was installed along highway 127: 12 miles (19 km) to St. Johns. Similar mileage/kilometer signs were installed on highways throughout the state of Michigan. During that same time period most new cars featured kilometers on the speedometer dial. Today there are no highway signs in kilometers guiding travelers towards St. Johns and there are no kilometer markings on new car speedometer dials.
During this same time period, Chesterfield tried capitalized on the rage to make cigarettes longer and the perceived metric craze. The once popular brand introduced the "101" with the tagline: A Silly Millimeter Longer. The ads were so clever that the tagline is remembered even today - even as all the metric signs have been removed from the highways of Michigan. It was a quiet populist movement. The metric system never caught on in everyday Michigan life. We don't kick a football 33 meters for an extra point. We don't cheer for a 125 meter home run. It's not the the MIS 500 KM NACAR race. The Silly Millimeter never caught on with the Michigan motorists and all the speed limit signs now reflect the traditional Imperial system. The Chesterfield cigarettes? Apparently they are still popular in several European metric dominated countries.
European metric track and field events draw standing room only crowds. That Silly Millimeter is part of their culture. Meanwhile in the good old USA a touchdown is still 100 yards on the high school, college and pro football fields. Football players at all levels are judge by their 40 yard time - not some metric mark. No Silly Millimeters when billionaires control the fields-of-play. If these distances were changed to the metric system - maybe metrics would be part of our culture. But they have not been changed. As a result, the fans and the ticket prices have increased. It also should be noted that the imperial measurement sports pay for the non-revenue metric sports on most campuses.
Speaking of campuses, I ran cross country at Eastern Michigan University when feet, yards and miles ruled. Once a year myself and a few teammates would hitchhike from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor to watch U of M vs UCLA in track and field. You had to get there early to get a seat because of the thousands of fans. We all could relate to the events and the heritage of the records that dated back to the 1800's. However with the advent of metric system - all the records from the legendary "Champions of the West" were erased. Last year I attended the Big Ten Track and Field Championships. I had no trouble getting a seat in the half empty stands. I admired the athletes' skills, but I had no idea what were good times versus great times.
Like many boys and girls who ran track in the 1960's, I could tell you verbatim the good times for each event: 10 seconds flat for the 100 yard dash, 50 seconds for 440 yard sprint, 2 minutes for the half-mile, under 5 minutes for a good high school mile, etc. The average fan could relate the times and distances to their day to day life. Meanwhile, since the metric system has dominated track and field, it has lost all its influence in every day life and all the high school and college running records that the average fan could related to have been retired.
That's What Happened...
Photos: U.S. Metric Association July 1975 and Wayne Till's RODHS collection
By Jim Schultz
Tailgating vs. Medieval-Gating
Decked out in bright red sweatshirts, my wife and I followed the streams of maize and blue to “ The hole that Yost dug, Crisler paid for, Canham carpeted and Schembeckler filled up” (Bob Ufer, lead U of M radio announcer 1978) . Coach Schembeckler was no longer part of the University of Michigan football program, but a young Redhawk quarterback named Roethslisberger was starting for the unranked school from Oxford, Ohio and the football stadium had yet another sellout with 109,676 in attendance.
Devoid of our normal green and white Michigan State garb, we still were in enemy territory - hemmed in by maize and blue. Our son had chosen Miami of Ohio and we could not turn down lower deck seats on the 40 yard line in the Big House. With the stadium finally in sight, without making eye contact, we walked through a gauntlet of maize and blue tailgating tents in our red sweatshirts. Then, in the distance we saw several red flags and the tops of two red tents!
Our pace quickened! Our aim became true. We pushed through the maize and blue to the solid red of Miami of Ohio. Then it happened, like it must have happened 600 years ago at jousting tournaments. About 50 yards away, we could clearly see the two red tents filled with people dressed in red sweatshirts of all shape and sizes. They saw us! They waved! We waved back with smiles on our faces. As we entered the bright red tent, two strangers dressed in red, we were hugged, fed and toasted with beverages!
I vaguely remember the game. I have shadowy images of being surrounded by 100,000 fans. With an occasional fan screaming, “One of our player’s is a true freshman”. But we both still remember that moment when we saw the red tent and the spirit of comradery we got from total strangers.
Tailgating is more than tailgating – it is part of a medieval-gating tradition. Modern tailgating is a link to our medieval past of jousting tournaments complete with flags, colored tents, music, armored heroes and ladies dressed for the occasion. The medieval joust of two armored men on horses charging each other with lances has been replaced by two teams of eleven men charging each other. Both events took place in short bursts of time – it is said that the average football player is actually in action 11 minutes a game. In both events the real essence of the event is not the just the participants, but the synergy of the crowd of all social strata - not just sitting in the stands - but celebrating their heroes’ competition with their own tailgating competition.
From the 11th to 16th centuries medieval jousting began as a form actual warfare and then evolved as mock warfare. At the beginning It was often an organized excuse for brutal gang fight. However, as chivalry became the norm, the joust became more regulated and could safely be integrated into medieval society. For example, in the 14th century, a barrier know as a “tilt” was introduced to separate the armored knights riding full speed at each other. Along with rules allowing the joust to be part of civil tournaments within a town, equipment changes made the event safer. Jousting in the 1100s took place with deadly weapons of war and wearing only chain mail for protection. But by the 1400s most knights jousted with blunt tipped lances in beautifully crafted plate armor. These changes allowed medieval-gating surrounding the tournament jousts. The Chronicles of Froissart describes a 1390s tournament held in the market-place of the town with forty knights as contestants: “The knights jousted for the prize of a clasp of precious stones, taken off from the bosom of the Duchess of Burgundy. “
On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University in the first intercollegiate football game. Spectators showed up before the game to enjoy food and each other’s company. It is also one of the first sporting events in America where fans and players wore identifying colors and headwear. The first western team to travel east was the 1881 Michigan team, which played at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Within a few decades the sport attracted fans by the thousands, despite the game’s increasing brutality that saw eighteen deaths by 1805. In place of Chivalry, Teddy Roosevelt met with college officials and the beginning of the present rules of play were adapted. These rule changes, plus improved equipment, provided a welcome environment for safe tailgating outside the newly built stadiums. As for the term tailgating, one popular theory is that Green Bay Packers fans coined the term tailgating in 1918. Fans parked their pick-up trucks around the stadium and lowered their tailgates to accommodate a pre-game celebration of eating and drinking. Whatever the origin, the term tailgating spread to college football stadiums throughout the nation. Now the sign of a truly successful college football program is a pre-game tailgating tradition that unites students, townspeople and alumni.
Like the jousts of 600 years ago surrounded by tents, royalty and townspeople, no college football game is complete without tents with school colors, food that could be literally be served from a pick-up tailgate and specially build box seats for major donors. We fans of today connect with our would be the knights as they race full speed on a playing field towards a rival, braced not for blow by a lance, but for a cross body block or a gang tackle. In both tailgating and medieval-gating, all activities are punctuated by music, framed by teams of ladies dressed for the occasion and enhanced by traditional foods that often turn the event into a feast for the palette and the eye.
Watching a college football game on a flat screen at home is entertainment and allows us to celebrate “our guys”. But tailgating on a college football Saturday allows us to be an integral part of the all-important pre-game ritual and provides a one of a kind motivation for the players before the kick-off. College tailgating is further legitimized the national TV Networks that cover pre-game events. These shows allow us to celebrate our culture’s warriors within the context of our medieval heritage via a flat screen and a couch. No matter what our race, creed or color, for a moment in time we have a chance to unite behind “our guys” through tailgating.
Rene Anjou 1460: This jousting tournament painting attributed to Rene Anjou (1390) features all the attunements of modern tailgating: flags and tents representing their heroes’ colors, townspeople as fans cheering and booing, nobles refereeing and knights in orderly combatant.
Anjou Updated By Cecil Doughty: The painting is a modern interpretation of Rene Adjou’s 1460 jousting tournament painting by Cecil Doughty. This painting gives us a firsthand look of the townspeople as fans.
Jeff Joseph's Spartan Stadium: Jeff Joseph’s painting of a present day Michigan State University Saturday afternoon football game from the point of view of a tailgating reveals all the characteristics of Mediaeval – gating 700 years ago.