So, Why the Left Turns?

Me desperately trying to hand the baton off to Jamiel Trimble in the 4×100 meter relay

Track is a unique sport.

Everyone wears skin tight uniforms and dons special shoes that literally have sharpened metal points that could (and have) done some serious bodily damage.

In all of the relays, from the 4×100 to the distance medley, a small metal baton, usually aluminum, and can be any color from regular jet black to iridescent rainbow, is passed around like a hot potato (see image above).

But the most iconic thing about track lies in the name itself: the track. Any legitimate track meet that is contested, ranging from little Johnny and Jordan at the middle school level all the way up to the elite races boasting names like Usain Bolt and Alyson Felix, coincidentally are ran on a quite legitimate track. That’s not to say that some tracks are better than others (I’ve ran on the University of Oregon’s track a few times, and there is nothing that I’ve seen or felt that holds a candle to it), but overall, a track is a track.

And with every track, and the races that are held on them, a common factor is ever-present that truly defines the nature of the sport.

You have to turn left.

Yes, that continual movement of runners of all shapes, sizes, speeds, and disciplines all in the same counter-clockwise (for my Great Brits out there, anti-clockwise) turning to get around the “oval office.” And this maxim holds true for basically all runners out there (the distance runners on my team would run in the opposite direction a lot of the time for some weird reason; it was always funny to see them cheer us sprinters on as they ran straight at us).

But why is that so?

Well, my friend, I’m afraid I can’t give you a straight answer. Coaches, athletes, and skeptics from all over have posited this same question as to what the true origin of the left turn was.

…While I’m sure that’s not the answer you were looking for when you read the title of this article, fret not. I have compiled several of the possible answers as to why “run fast, turn left” applies today in the modern world of track. You decide which is the true reason.

Or not. I’m not your mom.

It’s Divined from the Heavens

Or heavenly bodies, to be more precise. I’m talking about space, specifically the planets in our solar system. In case you weren’t aware, all of the planets in our solar system both spin on their own axis and revolve around the Sun counter-clockwise (Venus and Uranus are the exceptions; both still orbit the sun in the same way as the other planets, but Venus rotates clockwise while Uranus almost rotates up and down). *If you want to learn more about the planets and space in general, check out NASA’s page.

Ph.D Ethan Siegel from the University of Portland and Lewis and Clark College also mentions that nearly 99% of all the recorded space objects in the solar system (such as comets, asteroids, things in the Kuiper belt [or region beyond Neptune]) also rotate counter-clockwise around the Sun.

If nature in our world were to follow the rotation and orbiting of the planets, then the counter-clockwise lap running in our species’ athletic events would not be the most illogical connection.

Right-Footed, Left Turn-ed

From my own inferences and some casual searching on the Google machine, I came to the conclusion that the left, counter-clockwise turns in the sport of track could be attributed to the vast majority of the world’s population. Specifically, the inclination for most people on Earth to be right-side dominant.

Heather Whipps of LiveScience and Kevin Kaduk of YahooSports are two of many like-minded individuals who think that righties find the motion of a left turn more favorable to the natural movement of their bodies. The right arm is able to pump back and forth at a faster rate than the inside left arm, and the more powerful right foot and leg can provide greater explosion and stability going into a left rather than a right turn.

Ken Jakalski of Freelap denotes that all people tend to have a “veering tendency” or a “rotational bias,” essentially meaning that every individual walks, runs, and moves in one direction or the other naturally. As the world’s general population is very much in the majority as right-hand and right-foot dominant, the rotational bias of most people coincidentally is also to veer left. Hence the left turns.

If this is the reason for the left-turn nature of tracks, then my personal apologies to all the lefties reading this (sorry Jaret). Fortunately for me, I’m a rightie.

So yeah. Awkward.

The Greeks Said So?

Image result for greek stadion race
Pottery depicting the “stadion” race

The ancient arbiters of the original incarnation of the Olympic Games held the contest every four years, just as we do in the modern age. The events contested resembled some that we see today, such as wrestling, boxing, a pentathlon, and equestrian races. The preeminent event of the ancient Olympiad, as some could argue today, was the full-out sprinted footrace.

According to Mark Cartwright of Ancient History Encyclopedia, this approximately 200 meter-long race in Ancient Greece was known as the “stadion,” and the victor of this elite event would go down in history as a legend (sometimes individual Olympic games being named after the victors). However, this doesn’t help us answer the question of why I ran counter-clockwise on the track. The reason?

The race was in a straight line. No turns necessary.

Granted, all of the horse races contested in the ancient olympiads were run counter-clockwise, and this very well could have applied to running races in today’s day and age. We’ll look at that a little more in the next one.

It’s Natural to Look from Left to Right

Honestly, this opinion may have also stemmed from the ancient Greeks. As the founders of the Olympics, they did happen to arbitrarily decide that the horse/chariot races in the Hippodrome (giant oval tracks found throughout Greece), and then naturally all other races today followed that same line (NASCAR, bike racing, speed-skating, Kentucky Derby; I could go on). And why is that?

Mohammad Hadi Tavakkoli, publishing for the International Education E-Journal cites that the influence of the Greeks on philosophy, art, and culture eventually led to track races being ran counter-clockwise. You might be wondering why that has anything to do with making left turns on the racetrack. Well, according to Tavakkoli, the Greeks wanted the races to fall in line with the apparently natural way they should see the world: writing and reading was done from left to right; artwork was more aptly observed when starting from the left and working one’s way over.

This, he states, may also have applied to spectators watching the races. If there were left turns, then the audience would perceive the event in their vision from left to right. An interesting thought.

So, there’s a lot of theories being thrown around of why we turn left. I for one, out of logic, lean to the idea that we as the human race naturally decided to make our turns counter-clockwise because most people throughout human history have been right-side dominant. It makes a lot of sense and sounds good in my head.

Then again, it’s much cooler to think that I am literally one with the celestial bodies in the great outer space, and that I turn left because they do too.

Unless you’re a leftie. Then I guess you’re stuck with Uranus.

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