Hamilton & Bolt celebrating

Losing track of performance

Usain Bolt has a long one. Lewis Hamilton’s too, and getting bigger all the time. Lester Piggott’s was very impressive in his day, and Rachael Blackmore’s just got one of her own. 

Boris Johnson certainly doesn’t have one, nor any other politician or business leader who are so often credited with the distinction. (Correction: former Lib-Dem leader Menzies Campbell is an exception, and there are probably others I can’t bring to mind.)

The asset in question is ‘track record’. No dispute about Bolt on the athletics track, or Hamilton on the F1 equivalent. And Piggott got his on horse-back, as did Rachael Blackmore by becoming the first female jockey to win the Grand National.   

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium with sprinting legend Usain Bolt during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 687707797 ORIG FILE ID: 865147442

Johnson and fellow politicos just have a record (prison as well for some), but track never enters into it. Yet we endlessly read about XYZ’s ‘track record’ when the person in question has never been near a race track of any description. As a competitor, that is. Attendance at Ascot, Aintree, or Silverstone hospitality boxes doesn’t count. (The political exception, Ming Campbell, was a champion sprinter in his youth and held the British 100 metres record from 1967 to 1974.)

As always, when track record was first used, it had an originality of imagery – comparing political or business performance with that of an athlete or sporting competitor – but it has long lost that novelty. It is now a knee-jerk tic of lazy writing: ‘record’ cannot be keyed in without automatically prefacing with ‘track’.

Some random examples of the absurdities that the practice produces… 

“A big, reputable winery with a good track record…” – Forbes. 

“A Washington veteran with a bipartisan track record…” – Washington Post

“Venture firms without much of a track record…” – New York Times.

Here’s another beaut, again from the Washington Post: “Gaddafi’s calls for unity and stability are at odds with his track record of backing rebellions.”

You can just visualise the colonel getting all these rebellions lined up on the starting blocks, having first got excellent odds from the bookies on his favoured runner. Bookies knew better than to short-price him, otherwise they’d meet the same fate as the losing rebels. And they always paid out, somehow.

cartoon, railwaymen talking about derailment, off track

Time magazine also conjured up some startling imagery: “Harris has a track record in breaking new ground.” Wow! Does that mean she’d won lots of ploughing competitions in between running for vice-president? Or maybe it was before she went into politics and was still turning a straight furrow in California.

Favourite qualifiers for track record are ‘proven’ or ‘outstanding’, implying there must be quite a few spurious ones out there – those that are continually put forward but are not always genuine and must be treated with suspicion. Fact! As a Harris predecessor in the White House used to say. You’ve either got one or you haven’t, so if you insist on using the expression the extra adjectives are all redundant.

The Online Etymology website gives 1955 as the first recorded usage in this sense of career distinctions, but not the specific example. A Google search for ‘track record’ now turns up more than 2.8 billion! Do we really need another, even if it was the first?  Let’s go back to pre-1955 and keep to just ‘record’ or an option that has not yet descended to cliché status… history or past performance, which writers of ‘track record’ really mean.