Does Anyone Care About Track and Field?
In late July of 1996, millions of Americans anxiously sat in their living rooms, eagerly awaiting one of the most anticipated sporting events of the entire year. The build-up was dramatic; tension hung heavily in the air. In a shade over 19 seconds, it was all over -- Michael Johnson had completed his improbable double in world record time, turning back a star-studded field in the Olympic 200 meter final.
Posted Tuesday, 4 February, 1997
In late July of 1996, millions of Americans anxiously sat in their
living rooms, eagerly awaiting one of the most anticipated sporting events of the
entire year. The build-up was dramatic; tension hung heavily in the air. In a
shade over 19 seconds, it was all over -- Michael Johnson had completed his
improbable double in world record time, turning back a star-studded field in the
Olympic 200 meter final. At that moment, the sport of track and field had the
undivided attention of the American public, from both the casual and fanatic
followers of sport.
On a January Friday evening in Boston, six months after Johnson's epic
run, I ventured into the city to watch the Boston Indoor Games track and field
meet. No, Michael Johnson wasn't there, but several of his USA Olympic teammates
were. From 60 through 3000 meters, each event was loaded with national and world
class competitors. The races were exciting and fast, and included several
excruciatingly close finishes. Although the Celtics, Boston's professional
basketball team, were playing across town, this was easily the highest level of
athletics being performed in the area on this night. A casual crowd of about 1000
was on hand, mostly made up of athletes' family and friends, high school track
teams, a sprinkling of media, and some of the local road running community.
Should such an event have drawn more support from the sporting community? Is
there anything that can be done to encourage such support? Should you, as a road
runner, care about the sport of track and field? Not easy questions, any of
There was a time when track and field faced no such vexing questions.
When young Jim Ryun set the world record in the mile of 3:51.1 on a cinder track
in California, it was big news. It was not just during the Olympiad that folks
paid serious attention to track and field. Indoor and outdoor meets drew a huge
following on television, newspapers, and national magazines. A "dream mile
"pitting Ryan and a young upstart from Villanova named Marty Liquori filled
cavernous Franklin field in Philadelphia with fans. In those days, no one worried
about meets being canceled due to lack of sponsorship, fan interest, or both.
Times have changed. Nowadays, new sports are cropping up like weeds on
the sporting landscape. There were no "X" games then, no wall-to-wall coverage of
college football and basketball. Sure there was professional golf, but not
constant coverage of seniors and women's tournaments. And it seems like every
other night you turn of the television these days, there is some kind of ice
skating exhibition showing. Track and field? Oh there is an occasional snippet
from Oslo or Zurich during the summer, and a brief flurry of World Championship
coverage. Otherwise, see you in Sydney.
Of course television producers are not in the business of creating
interest in particular sports, by and large. They are in the business of selling
advertising spots, and the best way to do that is to deliver to the viewing
public what it is they would like to see. Is it true that the viewing public
would rather see yet another regular season basketball game, or yet another
meaningless tennis match rather than watch a track meet full of exciting
competition? Apparently it is, because otherwise we would be getting track meets
on television. And more meets on television would create more interest in the
sport in general, which would filter down to the local level. Then maybe 10,000
people would watch a local meet instead of 1,000. This might in turn interest a
few more young boys and girls in the sport, beefing up programs around the
country, and perhaps lifting the level of competition and awareness in the sport.
I for one, have never run in an organized track race. I would venture
to guess that the majority of the readers of this column also fall into that
category. Although I have not ever been a track and field participant, I am an
avid road racer, and I do feel a certain sense of kinship to track and field.
Each time I attend a meet, I positively marvel at the power and strength with
which these athletes run. I would love to be able to run just one 45 second
quarter-mile, just to know what it feels like. For me, 75 to 80 seconds is a
maximum effort. I cringe a little every time the sport of track and field is
publicly denigrated. Road running is a participant oriented rather then spectator
sport. How many road runners care about the health of track and field? Do road
runners watch track meets in greater numbers than non-runners? I don't know the
answer to these questions, but I do think that road runners would do well to
support track and field. It probably would not have much of an effect on road
running, which is healthy in it own right, but I do think local track and field
events deserve our support.
For the sport of track and field to truly succeed on a major level, it
needs support from the general public, not just runners. There are several
reasons why the public perception of track and field has suffered in recent
years. Let's list a few of those reasons, and speculate as to whether there is
anything that can be done to repair the image of the sport.
The general perception is that most track and field athletes use
performance enhancing drugs.
This is a huge problem for the sport. Despite measure taken to ensure
a drug-free sport, three incidents in the past decade have caused almost
irreparable damage. Those events are the Ben Johnson scandal in the 1988
Olympics, the Butch Reynolds fiasco of the early 90s, and the stunning emergence
of the Chinese women in 1993. Johnson set an apparent world record in Seoul, but
tested positive for anabolic steroids and was later stripped of his world record
and gold medal. Millions watched Johnson beat Carl Lewis. When he categorically
denied having used steroids, then admitted having done so years later, it created
a black cloud over the sport. If Johnson was dirty, Olympic viewers could only
wonder how many other athletes might be too.
Reynolds tested positive by the IAAF, and like Johnson and others
having tested positive, denied the allegation. The difference in Reynolds' case,
at the time the premier 400 meter man in the USA, was that he had proof that the
IAAF made an error in testing. A court case dragged on for ages, right up to the
1992 Olympic trials. NBC's coverage of the trials focused on Butch Reynolds,
ignoring much of the drama on the track. Again, casual fans (and many devoted
fans as well) were left wondering who was on the juice and who was not. Right or
wrong, this doubt in the mind of the viewer compromised the credibility of
national and international competitions.
Finally there is the saga of the Chinese women. It was never proved
that any of the women from China who re-wrote the record books in 1993 were ever
aided by illegal substances, but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. After
taking down every distance record from 3000 to 10,000 meters, the Chinese women
virtually disappeared from the world landscape. Almost everyone believes these
marks are tainted; this in and of itself has caused great harm to the sport.
Only time and absolute integrity will win back the skeptics. Drug
enhanced football players are deplorable, but drug induced track athletes are
completely unacceptable, as these athletes are competing against history and
absolute time and distance standards as much as they are against other athletes.
The star athletes lack charisma and are difficult to embrace.
In the past 15 years, the greatest performers in American track and
field have been Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson. Neither of these men are going to
be confused with the happy-go-lucky Bill Rodgers, who led the road running boom
in the late 70s. During his prime, Lewis was viewed as a prima donna with an
abrasive personality. He had a chance to win over fans with his fourth long-jump
gold medal in Atlanta, but destroyed that goodwill with his antics in trying to
politic for a place on the 4 x 100 meter team. He probably should have been named
to the team, but not by lobbying on national television. Lewis has been an
outspoken critic of the governance of the sport through the years. He surely has
a point, but has lacked the credibility to make it. Lewis has always seemingly
done only what is good for himself, without thought to the betterment of the
sport. He is the without a doubt the greatest track athlete of his generation,
maybe ever, but has been mostly ignored by the American sporting public. Johnson
is less controversial, but also comes across as egotistical and condescending,
not exactly the ingredients for ingratiating sports fans.
Much of the rich history of track and field has centered around the
mile run. Ryan and Liquori dominated the 70s, both achieving success in
international competition. That tradition was carried on by Steve Scott, who
holds the record for most career sub-4:00 minute miles (136). But the past decade
has seen a huge drop-off among American milers. Steve Holman has emerged as a guy
to possibly carry the mantle, but failed to even qualify for the USA 1996 Olympic
team. Without a marquee miler, the sport has suffered in recent years. What the
sport desperately needs is a charismatic miler to attract the attention of the
average sports fan and galvanize the sport. Too bad Tiger Woods didn't take up
running instead of golf.
The sport is not being governed, marketed, or promoted
There is little doubt that this statement is true. While other sports
such as golf, tennis, and ice skating have embraced the big money 90s, track and
field has been left in the starting blocks. Aside from the Olympics, there are
very few American track meets that have any drawing power to speak of. Sure,
there are the Penn Relays, perhaps New York's Millrose Games, but most meets are
similar to the Boston event I attended, supported by a vocal and energetic, but
small crowd of fans. Even worse, some long-standing meets are falling by the
wayside. After 37 years, the Sunkist meet in Los Angeles was canceled this year.
A drop in attendance and the withdrawal of Sunkist as a sponsor doomed the meet,
which was the site of many great moments through the years. The Millrose Games
will be held this weekend at Madison Square Garden, but rest assured, you will
have no problem getting a ticket should you desire to attend the event.
Much of the blame for this demise can be laid at the feet of USATF,
the national governing body. For whatever reason, USATF has failed to capitalize
on the golden opportunity of two Olympic Games on home turf in the past two
decades. In the case of both Los Angeles and Atlanta, any momentum developed by
the Games was lost in ensuing months after the games. There were a lot of nice
stories Atlanta. Have you heard of Allen Johnson? All he did was win a gold medal
in the 110 meter hurdles. He laughs and says people keep calling him Michael, but
it's not all that funny. More people know who the back-up point guard is for the
Chicago Bulls than know who Allen Johnson is.
The misguided promotion of track and field is exemplified by this 150
meter "showdown" between Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson. First of all, 150
meters is not even a recognized distance. This almost renders the event
meaningless from the start. Second, both Bailey and Johnson have been mouthing
off like a couple of heavyweight boxers. All this attention over a meaningless
exhibition detracts from quality competition in other meets. The hundreds of
thousands of dollars being poured into this silly race could be put to much
better use at a grass roots level. I know this is the way of the 90s, trash
talking and braggadocio. It just doesn't serve a floundering sport very well,
Whether or not it was his fault, USATF has a convenient scapegoat for
all of its troubles in Ollan Cassell, who was ousted as executive director in
December. In the space at that time I suggested Cassell lacked the vision to
bring track and field into the big time. This much is true: many people currently
within the organization understand track and field's dire plight. They know that
if there is any chance to better the public image of the sport and win over the
fickle sports fan, it had better begin now. Otherwise track will remain a minor
league sport, only to drift into public view every four years.
That would truly be a shame, because a track meet is really a fun
event to watch. If more folks knew about this and attended a meet or two, it
would be good for the entire sport. It might actually be better if we had to
worry about getting a ticket to a track meet.