In my high school psychology class, we learned about the bystander effect, or “Genovese Syndrome”, named for Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was stabbed to death outside her New York City apartment in the middle of the night in 1964. In the newspaper account of her murder, it was reported no one came to her aid, even though 38 people had either witnessed portions of her 30-minute attack or heard her cries for help. Psychologists used Kitty’s murder to analyze why people are reluctant to help someone. The story was a provocative way to get students to discuss whether they would step in and help someone in a similar situation. Over time it has been revealed many parts of the story were not true and people were not as indifferent as the news accounts led us to believe. However, the discussion about the bystander effect still continues.
Kitty came to my mind when I saw a news report about a girls cross-country runner who stopped to help a runner from another team who had fallen during a state sectional meet. Gracie Bucher, an 8th grader from Windom in Minnesota, collapsed not far from the finish line. Despite several attempts, she could not get back on her feet to finish the race. That was when Liana Blomgren, a senior from Mountain Lake High School, came by. Seeing Gracie on the ground, Liana grabbed her by the arm and told her “I’ve got you. You’re with me.” Liana helped Gracie finish the race. That gesture of kindness resulted in both Liana and Gracie being disqualified.
I was sad to hear Liana ended her high school cross-country career with a DQ. Gracie felt bad about it too. In fact, she sent Liana flowers and gave her a Dairy Queen, DQ, gift card as a token of appreciation. Liana said she doesn’t recall what place she was in at the sectionals for the prior two years but she will always remember this one. Liana is a terrific young woman.
Over the years I have seen many instances of a runner helping another runner to the finish line. This happens in all kinds of races, including marathons and half marathons. There are a number of reasons why a runner might collapse – twisted ankles; falls from tripping; tendons that give out; dehydration; or, in Gracie’s case, an undiagnosed case of mononucleosis. Who can forget the collision of Abbey D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) half way through a qualifying heat for the women’s 5000 meter race in the 2016 Summer Olympics? Abbey and Nikki helped each other to get back up and finish the race. They personified true sportsmanship. It is comforting to know some runners are willing to put kindness and compassion above competition.
The National Federation of State High School Associations Board of Directors has changed the rules for high school track and field in 2017. With the new rule, “a participant who assists an injured/ill competitor shall not be disqualified if an appropriate health-care professional is not available.” As I interpret this new rule, I think Liana still would have been disqualified. Gracie collapsed not too far from the finish line where conceivably there would have been appropriate health-care professionals. They would have seen Gracie struggling and could have intervened. Maybe I am wrong.
I question rules that penalize someone for helping another person in need. Instead we should foster an attitude that encourages people to help each other. The lessons we enforce in sports competition carry over into day-to-day life. I experienced this first hand in 2014 when I fell and broke my arm during a training run. I will remember forever Rebecca, a stranger who helped me until a friend arrived to take me to the hospital. Although she could have finished her own run, Rebecca stopped to help me. Without her help I probably would have gone into shock. Rebecca kept me calm while we waited for my friend. As runners, we are frequently alone but we are also part of a larger community. We should always have each other’s back and never be afraid to lend a hand – in a race or on a trail.