A Game of Inches

A Game of Inches

A Game of Inches

We Americans have long prided ourselves on our independence. We withdraw from international agreements, loosen longstanding alliances, and generally seek to forge our own separate path to greatness in the world. Let the Brits and French have their meters! We will stick with our yards and inches – thank-you very much – because … well, just because it’s American!

I hate to burst your bubble, America. In 1893 the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (a branch of the Department of Commerce) announced that the yard was to be defined henceforth in terms of the meter. The exact definition has changed over the years, but since an international agreement of 1959 the yard is defined as exactly 0.9144m.  The foot, for example, is just a funny fricative name we insist on using for a certain exact fraction of a meter. 

During the Carter administration, the U.S. began a “go metric” campaign designed to wean Americans from our feet, pounds, and gallons, and to bring us back in step with the civilized world. You may remember road signs with metric equivalent distances and speeds that popped up seemingly overnight on interstate highways during the 1970s. In 1979 the US High School Federation set a deadline of two years for U.S. high school track and field programs to become fully metric-compliant. This dictum was not greeted with universal equanimity, but school boards dug in and grimly began the expensive job of ripping out their old 440y tracks and replacing them with new 400m ovals. 

A backlash inevitably ensued. Track fans grumbled about their inability to grasp the significance of a 5m pole vault. Track pundits wrote angry articles decrying the introduction of [expletive deleted] distances like the 1600m in lieu of the mile, and gradually the beloved mile and deuce were reintroduced to high school meets in open defiance of the metric pencil-necks. The struggle continues even today. Just this year the Illinois High School Association published a document for track and field officials entitled Metric Manual for Field Events that calls for the state-level competition to be metric-compliant. Local competitions may still use English system measurements, but they are encouraged to switch to metric units, and the manual includes a full set of conversion tables to help with the transition. 

Ah, conversion! “Conversion therapy” is never simple, often unwelcome, and going in one direction is harder than the other. From English to metric units is straightforward and, increasingly, unnecessary. Governing organizations from the IAAF down to – but apparently not including – the high school level has for some time required lengths to be measured and recorded in metric units.

Conversion from metric to English units is trickier. Perhaps an example will clarify.  Let us say a hypothetical thrower records a mark of 3.93 meters. Doing some quick mental arithmetic, he concludes that this might be a new Chargers record. Back at home, he enters 3.93 into one of the handy conversion calculators on the internet (milesplit.com has a popular one dating back to 2006) and finds that the equivalent English distance is 12 feet, 10 ¾ inches. Bingo! Chargers record! But we are entitled to ask: in what sense is 3.93 meters “equivalent” to 12-10.75? The exact conversion mentioned above shows that 3.93 m is exactly 12 feet, 10.72440945 inches. 

Was the programmer of the conversion calculator just lazy, or did he/she know about an official rule of track and field that dictates how this sort of conversion should be done? Despite combing through several rulebooks, I’ve been unable to find any such rule. Can the reader find one? I’d love to hear about it since I have to perform just this type of conversion every time a metric distance is reported to me as a record keeper. Take a quick look at our Chargers record site and note that all our jumps and throws records are given in feet, inches, and quarter inches. Our own website is a veritable cesspool of non-metric compliance! (Every couple of years I think about converting our records to metric and cower in the face of this enormous task. Maybe next year.) 

I’m not quite finished with those web programmers. It is a cardinal principle of track and field that you never take credit, or want to take credit, for something you didn’t do. Distances to be run or heights to be cleared are always rounded up if they must be rounded. Distances run, and heights actually cleared, are always rounded down if they must be rounded. You keep your toes behind the starting line so that when you reach the finish line the distance you ran includes the thickness of that stripe. In the end, nobody can say you didn’t do what you claim to have done, and perhaps just a little bit more.

That’s the ethic that drew me (and probably you) to track and field in the first place.