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

Why the Decline?

Dec 3rd, 2020
12:07 pm PST

Once upon a time, not that long ago, the US was a true power in the sport of track and field. By true power, I mean beyond just having many of the world’s best athletes. That is almost a right of birth – a conversation for another day.

Not that long ago however, in addition to stellar athletes, we hosted some of the best track and field meets on the planet! Yes, that’s a true story. Probably hard to believe if you’re 35 and under, but actual track meets with fields as competitive as Prefontaine were actually quite common right here in the US. Invitational meets like Jenner, Jack in the Box, Modesto, Fresno, Pepsi, Drake, Texas, Florida and many others were Pre, before Pre. Several competitions; held in the same season; with high level athletes from Europe and Africa and South and Central America showcased among others; right here in the United States of America! It was wonderful.

But wait, there’s more. Our National championships (AAU, TAC, USATF) used to be held ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. Yes boys and girls. In places like San Jose, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Knoxville, Sacramento, Austin, Indianapolis and New York. And contrary to popular belief, the fans were great and so were the cities. The food, the sites and sounds were fantastic. The ambiance (we’re told now that doesn’t matter) and the annual experience of enjoying the sport and seeing and experiencing different places was bomb! It was what going to Nationals should be about – a TOTAL experience for the athletes and fans. That’s how you get new fans excited about the sport. It’s why the World Series, Super Bowl, and frankly the Olympics are the EVENTS that they are – the overall experience. Inside AND outside of the stadium!

But wait, wait, there’s more! We used to have a nation wide competition called the Sports Festival – a mini US Olympics – where the best of the US gathered from the four corners of the country. We also had a gathering of some of the best athletes on the planet called the Goodwill Games. A finals only competition of some of the best competition outside of the Olympic Games themselves. We also used to have US vs The Soviet Union and US vs East Germany duels. Head to head meets against, at the time, the other top track powers on the planet! The best of the best were competing here in the United States, in multiple competitions EVERY YEAR!

Track was popular because the leadership at that time knew the value of putting great competitors in front of the fans ALL OVER THE UNITED STATES! They knew the value of having our best athletes compete for their regions head to head. They saw the value of utilizing the drama of US vs THEM – the US vs The Eastern Europeans. We had leaders and businesses that realized there was value in having our country host the best in the world in competition. We’ve lost THAT!

Today’s leadership is too worried about how much television time they can cut. Too focused on how many events they feel aren’t necessary – and which athletes they can put out of work! Too focused on creating an imagined empire in a remote corner of the country instead of a brand nation wide!

The result of which is not just a loss of interest in the country with THE BEST ATHLETES ON THE PLANET. But has resulted in an attack on the sport at the developmental level. Colleges are failing to see the value of the sport within their academic/athletic programs. So one by one, we’re seeing track programs get cut! With zero outcry or action from the NCAA, or from USA Track and Field – who ostensibly is the “overseer” of the sport in this country!

So, now everything track and field is coming out of Europe! The best meets are in Europe. Track’s top “League” (the Diamond League) is in Europe. The best “secondary” meets are in Europe. The head of the IAAF/WA is Sebastian Coe – from Britain. The runner up in the election was Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka. We’re the country with by far the largest number of elite athletes in the sport, yet they have to go to Europe every summer to try to make a living! Does that make ANY sense? The sad thing is that the rest of the world is making overtures to join the party and move ahead of the United States as well! Doha has invested in a state of the art facility where they just held the last World Championships and hold their own Diamond each year! China, a communist country, has been host to a Diamond League event in Shanghai and World Championships in Beijing! Yes, Asia has come to play. Putting their best faces on display in some of their most outstanding cities! One of the perks of being an elite track and field athlete, is traveling the world and seeing it’s finest cities – Rome, Paris, Monaco, London, et al. Until you reach the US, where it’s supposed to be enough that fans cheer you! Which fittingly seems to sum up the attitude of US leadership regarding the sport in this country. And how other countries and their leadership view the sport!

Lack of leadership! That’s what’s wrong with track and field in the United States. Not the number of events. Not how long the meets run. Certainly not a lack of talent. It’s all about a lack of vision. That and a true lack of understanding of the sport that they’ve agreed to have oversight over! The result is a lack of investment, frankly because of selfish, self centered individuals. Venues like Edwards Stadium at UC Berkeley. Potentially the most perfect location for track and field in the United States with perfect weather and sitting within walking distance of one of the world’s most famous cities – San Francisco. Once host to the US v USSR dual and site of Jim Ryun’s WR 3:51.3 mile, withering away! Yes, money and resources have poured into Eugene. Meanwhile the rest of the country has watched venues, meets, and signature events die on the vine! And neither Nike, USATF, or Mr Phil Knight who purportedly loves the sport, shows any interest outside of Eugene. That’s pathetic.

As the athletes prepare to compete in Tokyo, our leaders are preparing to take a bow. To take credit for achievements they have little or nothing to do with! Our athletes will win 25-30 medals, because that’s what we do – on auto pilot. However the truth is we could win at least 40 with better leadership! More resources, national facilities and coaches. Better maintenance of what already exists. Better opportunities for developing athletes. More than the focus on building one single empire! Because that singular focus is causing the sport to suffer around the rest of the country.

All of the things that we used to have in this sport are still possible. Multiple world class meets. Great duels between nations. A national mini Games. Nation wide recognition and enjoyment of the sport. This is still the wealthiest country on the planet. We still have the resources to do everything that was done before. What we lack is leadership with the drive and focus to make it happen.

We need to get back to our leadership position in the sport off the track, which means that we need to be looking at changing those in leadership off the track. Clearly the wrong people are at the top. As with politics in general, it’s time to lobby, become vocal, and affect change. It’s either that, or continue to watch the sport die. Because that’s what’s been happening under current leadership. A slow and painful death. Track and field in the United States is not a town of 172,000 people. And it’s time that USATF, Nike and others start acting like it. That’s not where the talent comes from. It’s not where the coaches, save for a literal few, are. It’s not where the fans, and more importantly, the potential new fans are. So if we want to really build the sport, investment needs to be outside of those borders! THAT takes leadership!

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