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

Lessons Learned in 2021

Nov 24th, 2021
3:39 pm PST

After a year and a half delay due to Covid, track and field finally got back on track! Literally and figuratively. Even though the first half of the season was conducted in mostly empty venues, the athletes were just happy to compete – and it showed. Mostly empty as in with no one but other athletes, coaches, and a handful of support to cheer them on. Yet, superb times and distances were cranked out week after week. Including several national and world records. Absolutely incredible when you stop to think about it.

What started out as perhaps the greatest obstacle the sport has ever faced – the entire world shutting down over Covid – became the motivation for innovation and resolve among athletes and coaches all over the world. Together they figured it out. How to train. How to compete. How to improve and get better. Become faster and stronger. So that, at the end of the day, we witnessed one of the greatest seasons ever in terms of the high level of performances that were churned out. That part of the year has been well chronicled. We’ve spent months on end celebrating the fantastic achievements of athletes from junior level through elite Olympians. What hasn’t been talked about as much however, are the things learned during this time. Looking back in retrospect, what were the lessons of this crazy time? Because it’s often during times of adversity, that some of the best thoughts, ideas, and solutions emerge. So, this post is about the things that I’ve thought about as we move forward into four more consecutive years of global championships.

The World has Improved – Everywhere you looked in 2021, there were athletes from “unexpected” places making finals and winning medals. Two Swiss women in the finals of the women’s 100 in Tokyo. Italy winning the men’s 100 AND 4×1. Norwegian athletes winning the 1500 and 400H. African youth dominating the sprints at the U20 Championships. I could go on and on, but the point is simple. Track and Field can no longer be stereotyped. And we here in the US can no longer afford to take for granted that we can just “show up” and win medals. We have to work as hard as the rest of the world. And in some cases, maybe harder.

Mental Health is Important – That may sound like, duh, but the truth is that it’s something that we’ve never really talked about openly. And since we don’t talk about it, the assumption is that it’s a bad thing! Or worse, that everything and everyone is ok! Nothing could be further from the truth. We talk about being “strong” mentally, as if not to be mentally strong is to be mentally weak. We discovered during lock downs; that separation from other humans; being deprived of doing what we enjoyed; and being separated from those we love can affect your mental health. That checking on our mental health is as important as checking on our physical health. Because the two are connected and intertwined and an important part of being HEALTHY, period. So it’s ok, to talk to a doctor that specializes in mental health, every bit as much as talking to one that specializes in muscular, or spinal health. We’ve learned to accept that we need to schedule time to take care of our minds and mental health, just as we do with the rest of our bodies. Conversation about how we feel, and what’s on our minds is important. As a result, many options have sprung forth. That’s been a very good thing.

Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance – Another thing that sounds like, duh. But, part of the reason that the world has gotten better, is that they adhered to this simple phrase heading into Tokyo, while we (US) abandoned it. The result, was that most of the teams that went to the Games found ways to set up pre Games training camps, so that they could properly prepare. Most in countries near Japan, as Japan was having Covid issues prior to and during the Games. These countries did so to mitigate the effects of extreme time zone changes. To acclimate to the conditions. And to sharpen their relay work. The US, however, chose to not have a camp – anywhere. Not only here at home. We did, nothing. Not only was there no camp, but we were sending athletes from the US to Japan within a couple of days of competing – zero acclimation time. Making things difficult at best for our athletes. I know that there are those that will shout, but Covid. To that I will say, it could have been done. Others figured it out. And ironically, US professional sports led the way in creating Covid “bubbles”. The methodologies used had been developed right here in the good old USA. USATF was simply derelict in its duty in this regard. And the athletes paid the price, because “administrators” don’t compete! So, when looking at many of our athletes that were criticized for, “underperforming”. One must consider the circumstances that they were handed. As many were shortchanged before even arriving at the Games.

Sprinters are Sprinters – Another seemingly, duh comment. But track and field, like most sports, has become one of specialization. So there are sprinters that only run the 100; sprinters that run the only 400; sprinters that only run the 200; and the occasional sprinter that runs the 100/200. In 2021 however, Fred Kerley and Shericka Jackson began the reemergence of the “all around” sprinter. Better known as just a sprinter. Now, we’ve seen them before. Most recently with Allyson Felix, whose competed in the Olympics in all three sprints and run both relays. And there was Gwen Torrance, Chandra Cheeseborough, Pam Marshall, Valerie Brisco and lots of women during the East German days. Where we’ve not seen it as much is with the men. Bolt started his career in the quarter then worked his way down. Steve Williams could run all three. Michael Johnson started out in the 100 and moved up. Fred however, says he just wants to run what he feels like. He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. And it looks like Michael Norman is following suit. I expect that there will be other sprinters that will similarly upset the form charts. As, just being a sprinter, becomes a thing in track and field. As a matter of fact, the sprints will be dominated by “long” sprinters in 2022.

The Impossible, Isn’t – We’ve grown to think that some “barriers” are permanent. That it’s “impossible” to do better than that “mark”. That’s what happens when records last for decades. When they do begin to fall like dominoes however, the idea of “permanent barriers” begins to melt away. So in 2021, we suddenly saw 46.78 become 45.94 – over hurdles! With 46.17 in second place. And 51.46 over hurdles for women. 76′ 8″ in the shot put – breaking 75′ 10″. And a woman triple jump 51’6″. An 18 year old young lady ran 1:55 flat, and a 17 year old young man 19.84. Both went to the Olympics, and the young lady won two gold medals! These are just a handful of performances that characterized the 2021 season. A season where a slew of athletes ran times and jumped and threw distances, that just a couple of years ago were thought to be near the edge of “unbelievable”! To the point where shoes, tracks, and other technological developments were beginning to get the “blame/credit” for the increase in performance. What I know is this. The most exciting sport on the planet, got even more so in 2021. As suddenly more and more athletes began competing at “elite” levels. And world record performances became more “anticipated” than ever before.

Drugs are a Problem – The topic of drug use in sport has been a problem for some time. More so however in track and field than in other sports. Why? Primarily because of the “perception” of what drugs do for athletes in this sport! You see, drug use in almost every other professional sport is accepted. We just assume/accept that football players are “on something”. And when they are “busted”, they accept their fine and/or time out and they move on. No stigma. No one says much more about it. They just continue doing what they do. When someone in track and field gets “busted” however, there is a huge hue and cry. They are “labeled” as a drug cheat, and everything they do, or have done, becomes “questionable”! Why is this? Because the assumption is that the “drugs” created their performances – that they were incapable if not for the drug use. When in reality that is not how drugs work. This is why drugs are a problem, because of this perception. Now, I’m not “condoning” their use by any means. We have rules for the sport and if you break them there are consequences. We as a sport however, need to do a better job of a) education on what drug use actually does/means; and b) do a better job of managing the disclosure of drug use within the sport. Our drug “issues” are no better or worse than football or any other sport, and should be treated as such. The lifetime characterization of someone as a life long “cheat” in this sport creates negativity that is never overcome – by the sport! The constant finger pointing and negative comments by fans creates a cloud over both athlete and sport that permeates the perception of those outside of track and field. A huge problem as we try to grow the sport. Because as we try to grow this sport, the issue is not the length of meets; number of events; and certainly not the lack of talent. The perception is that too many performances are “tainted”. And no one wants to watch a “dirty” sport!

Marketing is Key – We complain that the general fan doesn’t pay attention to track and field. Then you have Sha’Carri Richardson get popped for weed – and the entire planet comes to her rescue! Why? Because every media and social media source was talking about it. And THAT is what track and field typically does very poorly – market itself! In this case, the story marketed itself. But we have so many “better” stories to share, if we would just do it! We have several young, marketable individuals. Sydney McLaughlin, Athing Mu, Noah Lyles, Grant Holloway, Elle Purrier, JuVaughn Harrison, Courtney Frericks, Gabby Thomas, Kenny Bednarek, Erriyon Knighton and more. We have great stories to tell. Everything from straight to the pros from high school (Noah Lyles); to a Harvard grad (Gabby Thomas) winning Olympic medals. The immediate success of Athing Mu, and the hard work and development of Courtney Frericks. We have everything it takes to develop tremendous PR. Unfortunately the only stories that get told, are those of individuals that test positive; miss tests, and get suspended. We must do a better job of controlling our narrative! We need to be much m ore proactive in the positive PR department. And do much more to minimize negative press.

The Olympics is the largest sporting event in the world. Even in the midst of one of the most difficult medical emergencies of the last century, it has the ability to captivate a global fanbase. And once again, Athletics (Track & Field) took center stage and proved that this sport has some of the greatest athletes on the face of the planet! It’s time that the men and women that display their wares get the recognition that they deserve. Both in terms of media recognition, and compensation. My goal in 2022, my early New Years resolution, is to attempt to put an even greater focus on the greatness of track and field.

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