The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

The Trouble with Track and Field

Feb 20th, 2024
10:06 am PST

Once again we get a proposal from World Athletics to change the sport. The most recent “change” was to call indoor track, short track! A change that most consider both “dumb” and meaningless. I am one of these people. What was the point? What does it mean for the sport? Change for the sake of change? That’s what it seems like.

Now, I understand what the leadership of our sport “thinks” they’re doing. Or at least is attempting to do. I’ve just come to the conclusion that they have NO idea what they’re doing, or how to accomplish their goals! So, I’m going to give my thoughts, because frankly they can’t be any worse. So, here we go..

Leadership is upset because our sport is not as popular as it should be. A sentiment that I think most fans of the sport can support. We absolutely lack in that area. So, we are on the same page regarding that. The question then becomes, how do we fix that? So, to answer that call, our leadership attempts to “rebrand” the sport. Changing the name of our governing organization from the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) to WA (World Athletics). Now, believe it or not, I understand “why” they wanted to change. The name as constructed contained the word “amateur” and that wasn’t the best wording in the twenty first century. However, no one KNEW what it meant anyway, and changing to the accronym WA is confusing and weak! All change isn’t good change, and isn’t necessarily in our best interest as a sport. Which is going to be my focus today, because the same can be said for changing the name of “indoor track”, why? What was the purpose? It IS track being run indoors! Duh. Easily identifiable. If you say you’re going to an indoor track meet, it’s pretty much self described. Now however, we’re expected to say we’re going to a “short track” meet. What the Hell is that? How short? What kind of track? A short one? Now, once again I think I understand the thinking. In Europe there is short track speed skating. Our leadership is in Europe. Speed skating is popular. Let’s copy THAT, and maybe they’ll come! Uh, no. That’s not how you improve our sport. It is how you get people confused however! Both fans and non fans.

So, here’s my first suggestion. Leadership. Seb Coe and others. You’ve branded us as WORLD Athletics. Stop trying to make us Euro Centric and try to appeal GLOBALLY! European athletics does a wonderful job in Europe. Focus on the rest of the world, or go work for European Athletics.

That said, let’s now look at some of the other suggestions that WA has had to improve our sport. Pre Covid, they were pushing the idea of eliminating some events. After all, we have too many events in their eyes. Our meets are too long and therefore people can’t watch. So, before addressing which events, let me address the length of meets. Our meets are of various lengths. There are meets that last all day.. Youth meets, high school invites, even meets on the relay circuit. But in general our “elite” level meets can be three or four hours. Let’s be honest though. Even though meets are usually a bit “bloated” with events containing local talent, etc. The simple solution is to schedule so that the meet has “sections”. Beginner, advanced, and elite sections. So that people can choose how much, and how long, to watch.

While we’re talking, let’s address the question of length. What’s too long?. Football games last at least 3.5 hrs. Maybe 4 with overtime. Baseball maybe 4 or 5 hours. Golf tournament, at least the same. I’m sorry, but track is no longer then many other sporting events. Less than some. And as I said, it’s easy to create “viewing windows” for in person or televised viewing.

Your friendly neighborhood WA however, was considering eliminating some events. Like the 200m, shot put and 5000m! That would mean we take away Noah Lyles, Letsile Tebogo, Erriyon Knighton, Shericka Jackson, Ryan Crouser, Jakob Ingerbringtsen and far too much African talent to put into print! And that’s with just the beginning of a list! In short, utterly ridiculous! Which is where Coe and Company are with most things. Knee jerk reactions to the wrong things. Attempting or doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Feeling like they have to do something.

Like the current “suggestion” to change the long jump. Eliminate the take off board and create a take off zone. Because, you know, that’s what they do in blind competition, and that way you don’t have as many scratches and all the jumps count. Ok, number one. If you want everything to count, change the false start rule and stop kicking people out of races! With respect to the long jump, my first question is how does this materially affect the stated goal of improving the popularity of the sport? Are people not coming or watching because there are fouls in the long jump? Serious question. I can tell you as a long time fan, that people are only upset when someone hits a really long one, and it’s a foul! But THAT is almost a part of the intrigue of the event. Bottom line, changing this rule will NOT create fans. So why do it? Now you complicate things. Your records have to change, and a whole lot of other things. You’re creating problems and fixing nothing. The WA way.

Ok. Let’s have some real talk. I agree that we’re not as popular as we should be. I completely disagree with everything done so far. And apparently the world agrees because NOTHING Coe and Company does, works. Why? Wrong focus. We have an awesome sport. It’s a sport rooted in something very basic, head to head competition. Who’s the fastest, jumps further or higher. Who can throw something farther. Almost every other major sport has elements of track and field in it. And frankly, we have some of the most talented athletes in the world in our sport. So, what’s the problem? I’m going to focus on two areas.

First is marketing. We do a poor job of telling our story. Let’s start with something as simple as letting people know when and where our meets are! People IN the sport don’t always know. Then we let small groups of people dominate the televising/streaming of our meets. THEN we allow the geo blocking of streaming across the globe! And the greatest irony in all of this, is that the market that everyone says needs greater results is the market where ALL of these things exist – the United States! Because we allow a handful of individuals and corporations to believe they own every likeness and image created by the sport! Thank you WA and USATF! The other marketing related issue, as if this isn’t enough, is that our individual stars aren’t marketed enough. Mahomes, James, Caitlin Clark, Dame Time, Giannis, Tiger, Big Popi, I can create long lists of “names” that are immediately identified by most sports fans. I can’t do the same for track and field. We must do better. But the next issue is actually partly why this is so.

My final issue for today, is unfortunately the most difficult to address. That’s the lack of competitive visibility of our athletes. Especially here in the United States. Other sports compete regularly. Multiple games, matches, etc during the course of their seasons. Athletes are seen multiple times, across the country. In international sports, across multiple nations. Fans get to see them, cheer for them, learn to identify with them.. You know, become fans. This does happen for fans in Europe. Europe is the smallest continent, and athletes go there and compete across the continent. Fans get to see their idols and bond with them. Their national stars are heroes that enjoy competing for their fans like athletes in other sports. Such is not the case in America.

America is a NECESSARY link in the growth of track and field globally! Why? Because by far, the largest number of super star athletes are American! Fact. Medals. Records. Top level elite performances. Everything that defines the sport is represented in American athletes. However. The least amount of professional activity in track and field occurs in the United States. And when it happens, it happens in one location, in a small town, in an upper corner of the country. With limited access for fans! Sound difficult? From a growth and marketing standpoint it is. In order for American athletes to get elite competition they mostly travel to Europe and compete in meets in London, Rome, Paris, Helsinki, Stockholm, Zurich, Lausanne, Oslo, et al. Outside of Europe they compete in Kingston, Shanghai, Doha, Marrakech, others. As a result many US stars are well known in other countries. The same can’t be said here at home. We have one elite level meet here in the US. Meaning that we don’t have multiple elite meets across the country for fans to attend. In addition our national championship meet, which used to move around the country, is held in the same location as the elite meet – Eugene, Oregon. A small college town, with a very nice facility (thanks to Nike), but limited otherwise. Difficult to get to. Limited rooms/housing. Making it a very expensive trip and hard for anything more than a limited number of fans to witness. I will give Lord Coe kudos on this one, as during his visit in 2022 he himself stated that the US needed to add approximately four or five more high level meets to the US schedule. And that they indeed need to be dispersed across the country. On that, he and I agree. America must be opened up if the sport is to grow. By the same token however, that includes lifting the restrictions on streaming and televising the sport in this country. Individuals should be able to “stumble” into track and field so that they can have the opportunity to learn about it. Currently you can’t get to it even when you want to. That must change. That said, the final piece on competition, is ensuring that meets have a maximum number of truly elite athletes in attendance. That’s a completely separate issue, but one that must be addressed because without athletes (elite) you don’t have a meet and the attempt will fail! I have ideas, but this has gotten long enough.

So, those are my thoughts. Yes, track needs work. That doesn’t involve changing the long jump, though it should including fixing the false start rule. We don’t need to eliminate events and athletes. We need to provide greater access to them. And changing the names of things is just, dumb. So please, WA, let’s fix what NEEDS to be fixed.

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