Reading all the recent headlines about track and field, one has to ask: What’s wrong with the sport? I’ve asked myself that question several times. And after careful review I conclude that there’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with the sport of track and field – NOTHING!
Track and Field, the sport I fell in love with at the age of ten, is perhaps the most exciting sport in the world. When you look at its various disciplines, it has perhaps the greatest assemblage of athletes in ANY sport. Speed demons. Strong, monstrous behemoths. Great leapers. Athletes with tremendous endurance. Athletes with various combinations of the above. There is no other sport with athletes with the combined skills of track and field. No wonder it became, and remains, the centerpiece of the world’s greatest sporting event – the Olympic Games!
So why does it shine so brightly during every Olympiad, only to see it’s shine extinguish along with that of the Olympic flame at the conclusion of every Olympics? Poor management! A Keystone Cops approach to running this sport that is fueled by greed and corruption!
You see, track and field at its core is pure – basic. Running, jumping, throwing. As the Olympic motto says: Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster Higher Stronger! THIS is track and field. This is why it’s the centerpiece of the Games. It’s why 1,053,621 high school youth participated in 2014. Making it the #2 sport in the country, barely losing to football (1,086,627) and well ahead of #3 basketball (969,796) and every other sport (soccer and baseball/softball dropping into the 700,000 range and others even lower).
State Championships in track and field fill stadiums, just as those for football and basketball do. And we know about the popularity of track at the Olympics as billions watch with baited breath the exploits of the world’s best.
So why the disconnect to the next level? There are more than enough fans to support the sport as evidenced by participation numbers, and numbers of fans at championship events. Whereas we still get SRO crowds at the Penn Relays and Pre Classic, once upon a time in the not too distant past, fans were also at SRO at meets like the Fresno Relays, Modesto Relays, Jack in the Box, Pepsi Invitational, Kinney Invitational, and Jenner Classic, among dozens of other meets around the country! What happened?
As that ten year old that fell in love with track grew up, he/I wished that track was a professional sport like football, basketball and baseball. Then Bob Hayes, Cliff Branch, and Mel Gray could stay in track instead of leaving to play football. Jim Hines, Tommie Smith and John Smith could get paid for being the dominant stars they truly were. Renaldo Nehemiah wouldn’t have cut his career short. Evelyn Ashford could’ve been the global star she should’ve been.
Professionalism, money I opined, would elevate this sport as it did for the big three (football, basketball, baseball) and golf, auto racing, and boxing.
There was an attempt in the 70’s to do that with the International Track Association (ITA). A league that was able to secure stars like Ben Jipcho, John Smith, Lee Evans, Brian Oldfield, Jim Ryun, Bob Seagren, Warren Edmonson and others. The ITA had it right. Attempting to ensure that everyone got paid. Ensuring that the stars competed head to head regularly. Even creating innovations like pacing lights for distance races. The ITA was truly fan friendly and exciting. It was what the sport should be NOW. The problem wasn’t the sport or the presentation. The problem was the sport’s governing body in the United States – the AAU!
The AAU spent most of its existence fighting against the sport, waging war against the ITA, the NCAA, and the athletes in general. Controlling all competition in the US, including the US Trials and entry into the Games, the AAU labelled all professionals "contaminated" and ineligible for any other competitions – effectively making them lepers of the sport. Being so labeled the ITA was unable to recruit new talent to the league, as no one wanted to endanger their Olympic eligibility – thus killing the ITA!
Shortly after the dissolution of the ITA (1976) the AAU lost its authority over track and field via the Amateur Athletic Act of 1978 and was replaced by The Athletics Congress (TAC) - the precursor to USA Track and Field (USATF). Creating a body who’s only interest was/is track and field. This should have made the transition to professionalism an easy one when the groundwork was laid in the mid 80’s. After all, the ITA was successful in its own right. It simply lacked the support of the sports governing body at the time – no it was fought tooth and nail by the sports’ governing body.
A funny thing happened on the way to professionalism however, track and field DIDN’T attempt to reorganize itself for professionalism! No NBA, ABA, NFL, USFL, MLB, PGA or otherwise professional type structure! Instead track and field has attempted to become a professional sport by retaining it’s amateur structure! Therein lies the source of all the sports ills. Not length of meets. Not lack of a fan base. Certainly not star level athletes. No, the problem is lack of a proper structure to run a PROFESSIONAL organization.
The sport is not broken. That’s why the attempts to change it keep failing – it doesn’t need to be changed. It does need to be run better. Imagine if every NBA team set its own schedule; played as much or little as it wanted ; and it’s star played a couple of games a year? What if the Lakers of Magic Johnson and the Celtics of Larry Bird only played one game a year – and Bird and Magic weren’t guaranteed to play? What if Kareem and Magic rarely played together? What if Bird only played in championship finals? Would the NBA have moved forward in the 80’s to the popularity that it did? Hell no! Yet this is how track and field had attempted to become popular, with its biggest star(s) rarely competing. With its Diamond League devoid of its biggest names – the complete opposite of the ITA.
Back when the Cosby Show ruled the airwaves, Bill likened the late introduction of one of the daughter’s boyfriends to serving a steak and lobster dinner on a garbage can lid – a wonderful meal ruined by presentation! THAT is how track and field is presented to the general public, on a garbage can lid! Because there is no structure. No cohesion. No one really in charge. Every man (and woman) out for himself. Every camp on its own. Every meet promoting itself. No one on the same page, yet everyone attempting to compete on the same track!
The sport is fine – except the false start rule. This mish mash of federations, meet promoters, athletes, agents, et al is the problem. Track and field is sort of like the illegal drug trade. A ton of people involved without any structure. Some make money. Some don’t. Some survive. Some don’t. Some have good stuff, some don’t. It works, but only for a few. And coincidentally for track and field, drugs apparently permeate – because of the poor structure.
If track truly wants to become popular like other professional sports, it doesn’t need to change the structure of its meets, it needs to change its organizational structure. Track needs to redesign how it’s run! (Pun intended)
What makes track a special sport is the Mano a Mano, head to head competitive nature of the sport. THIS is what the sport has lost over time, not having a professional structure that brings the best together with regularity. Usain Bolt doesn’t have to compete outside of championship events – and doesn’t very often! Wayne van Niekerk was able to crush the world record – then go home and stop competing! And both were up for Athlete of the Year! That doesn’t happen in REAL professional sports. It’s the rare occasion when LeBron James doesn’t take to the court. Relay teams compete ONCE A YEAR! Meet structure isn’t the issue, who’s NOT competing is!
Track and field needs to go back to the drawing board redesigning how it’s organized and run. Track and field needs to figure out how to get its best athletes COMPETING in meets other than championships. Track and field needs to figure out how to better distribute the wealth. Successful sports showcase their athletes, not allow them to "hide" competitively. Successful sports employ collective bargaining agreements to ensure that EVERYONE gets paid. There are things that successful sports leagues do that make them, successful. Track and field needs to figure out how to do that as well or it will die a slow painful death.