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

Want Half? Not Really!

May 18th, 2010
9:22 am PDT
Adidas Track Classic

Remember when you were a kid and someone had something that you really wanted, like a stick of gum or a candy bar? So you asked if they had another one and they said, “no, want half?”. You reluctantly said yes, because you really wanted the gum or the candy, but somehow half was just never as good as having the whole thing!

Well, that’s how I feel having looked at the schedule for the Diamond League, as well as the majority of major meets on this year’s schedule. I love watching a good track meet, but what the sport seems to be offering these days is just half! It really hit me when I was looking at the Track & Field News website last week and noticed that they had put together “A Guide to the Diamond League”. A full page explanation of just which events are being run in which Diamond League meets!

I’ve never needed an explanation of what events are going to be in a track meet before! Not only have I spent most of my life knowing what events are in a meet, but I can tell you verbatim what events are supposed to come in what order (there is an order to a track meet, or at least there used to be)! Now however, here in the New Millennium, we suddenly need an explanation of what to expect at each Diamond League meet – because you see, they’re really only half meets. So we got the Men’s 100 in Doha, but there was no men’s 200 or 400. We did get to see the women run the 200 & 400 in Doha, but there was no 100 – a shame because there have been some really good times in the 100 on the Doha track as the men’s 100 demonstrated.

So we get alternating events, but never all the events. Well, can’t say never because London gets them all – it  just takes them two days to do it. I never knew it took TWO days to run a meet with all finals! The two final meets of the Diamond League season (Zurich & Brussels) have exactly half of the events each. So if somehow you can get to Zurich and Brussels at the end off August you can see every event on the schedule – including the one race that has Bolt, Gay AND Powell this year. However, US citizens beware, in our two DL meets you won’t get to see Jeremy Wariner, Blanka Vlasic or Arianne Friedrich – because neither the men’s 400 nor women’s high jump are on the schedule in either New York or Eugene!

Confused yet? If you’re a sometime fan that watches occasionally maybe not. But if you are truly a fan of the sport, do you really want half? Now, I understand all the arguments that have been put out there. People won’t sit for more than two hours to watch a track meet. Can’t hold their interest that long. Attention spans are too short. Meets are too boring. I’ve heard them all. Yet people sit for hours to watch OTHER sports – basketball, baseball, football, hockey to name a few. They not only sit for hours but if the game goes into overtime they stay for that too! So what’s different about track and field that fans won’t stay past too hours?

I’ll tell you what. It lies in the last excuse I listed above – boring! Track and field, the sport that has something for just about everyone; that arguably has some of the best athletes on the planet participating has been dumbed down AND made BORING! The sport that I once had to park over a mile away from the Fresno, Modesto and San Jose stadiums and walk the final mile because every parking spot for blocks and blocks was taken. The sport where I once watched people climb the fence at UCLA to watch a UCLA/USC dual meet because every seat in the house was sold – FOR A DUAL MEET! The sport where I still have to get to the stadium a couple of hours early if I want to get a good seat at the California State High School Championships, tells me that fans can handle sitting through an ENTIRE meet just fine! 

All the meets that I mentioned above were/are full meets with ALL of the events and run/ran for several hours – and no one complained! What’s the difference between these meets and the Diamond League and other similar meets? Simple. Those meets could all boast a full slate of top level competitors going at it from the start of the meet until the end! That UCLA/USC dual meet had Greg Foster, James Sanford, Clancy Edwards, and Millard Hampton going at it, not once, not twice, but THREE times that afternoon – 4×1, 100, 200 – and no one left the stadium! I watched Steve Williams, Don Quarrie, Reggie Jones and Houston McTear go toe to toe in Modesto. This after watching Rod Milburn blaze a set of hurdles and Randy Williams and Arnie Robinson duke it out in the long jump. And finished the day watching Dwight Stones jump to victory as the moon was coming out – and the stands were still packed!

Unfortunately, today’s elite track meet can’t boast that kind of star quality across the board. Today we are lucky if we have half that many top quality athletes at a meet – and therein lies the problem. Track and field has stopped putting a competitive product on the track! You can no longer go to a meet confident that you are going to see top level athletes in every event. As a matter of fact you KNOW that is not going to be the case. Because track and field has become just like the Harlem Globetrotters – more exhibition than competition. Track tries to sell the marquee and entice the paying public to come see certain athletes perform. It may be Bolt, Felix and Friedrich in one meet. Another meet may feature Gay, Rudisha and Richards. Yet another meet may tout having Robles, Powell and Vlasic. But unless it’s the World Championships or Olympics, good luck having them all together in one venue!

Today’s “professional” track meets have become the track and field equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters’ traveling show. You know, the Globetrotters vs the Washington Generals game after game. The Globetrotters are the marquee, the Generals the patsy brought in to give the Globetrotters someone to play against. The Globetrotters come to town and pose for pictures and do interviews, then go out and, yet again, run up a big score on the Generals, and everyone goes home happy they’ve seen the World Famous Harlem Globetrotters!

And THAT is why track and field has become such a hard sell, especially here in the United States – we can only watch so much of the Harlem Globetrotters! As much as we like the entertainment value of all of their tricks, inside we wonder how they would fare against a team of comparable ability! We want to see them challenged – we want to see competition! The Globetrotters are really an EXHIBITION and we really want to see a hard fought game. Track and field, like the Globetrotters, has gravitated towards becoming a series of exhibitions, leading up to one really big meet each season – Worlds or Olympics! We get Usain Bolt in this meet, and Tyson Gay in another and Asafa Powell in yet another. But we only get them all together once a year!

So the paying public does what it does so well, it votes with it’s wallet! And somehow, the public is reluctant to spend it’s money on half a meet where only a third of those events have someone they would pay to see! That’s why I’ve watched meet after meet after meet in the US die a slow agonizing death. As meets have gotten to where they aren’t putting the best athletes on the track they’ve dropped off the map. Jack in the Box, Fresno Relays, Modesto Relays, Pepsi Invitational, Kinney Invitational, Jenner Classic. All are former California Invitationals that at one time boasted some of the best fields in the WORLD. Now all RIP in the track meet graveyard – victims of lack of attendance because they lost the ability to put headline athletes on the track.

So, we’re a great draw for our championship meets, and for the occasional meet that draws together more than a handful of our stars. We’re STILL the cener piece of the Olympic Games – the worlds greatest sporting spectacle. But in general we struggle trying to figure out the next gimmick that will bring fans through the turnstiles! Because all we seem to be able to give the public is half. Half the events, half the stars, half the excitement. And for fans like me, half just leaves us wanting more.

How did we get here? I’ll give you my opinion in an upcoming post.

2 Responses to “Want Half? Not Really!”

  1. skydance7 says:

    Probably not many of us left who remember what a real track meet is like. Sadly, most youngsters today think the product they're getting is as good as it gets.

    Appreciate your "voice in the wilderness" reminding us what once was…and what once again can be.

  2. Conway Hill says:

    I would hope they don't think this is as good as it gets .. Because if they do it will be difficult to make it any better ..

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