RealClearSports
Advertisement

Track and Field Has Barely a Pulse in U.S.

For the second time in three years the Boston Marathon yesterday was won by a Kenyan named Robert Cheruiyot, on this occasion in a record time of 2:05:52 shattering the previous mark by an extraordinary 82 seconds in the world's most prestigious and oldest continuously run marathon (yesterday's victor, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot is not to be confused with four-time champion and his countryman Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot).

Kenyans have now triumphed in 18 of the last 23 Boston races. The last American male to win was Greg Meyer in 1983. The last American to triumph in the New York City Marathon was just last year when Meb Keflezigh won, the first American in 27 years do so - before that it was Alberto Salazar in 1982. Actually, the last American-born runner to win the New York Marathon was Bill Rodgers in 1979. (Keflezigh immigrated to the United States as a 12 year-old from Eritrea and Salazar was born in Cuba).

The fact that so few Americans have had any success in our national marathons is of little surprise when one examines the state of track and field in this country.

Speaking in an unscientific, decidedly novice and strictly anecdotal fashion, interest in track and field in the United States seems to be at an all-time low. Whether this is the result of an oversaturated sports calendar or a failure from the leadership of the sport to effectively promote its product is too hard to tell. But one thing is certain - track and field barely registers on the average sports fan's radar.

It's hard to pinpoint when the decline occurred. Obviously track has never been a sport that has gathered the intense focus in America as the other individual sports like tennis and golf. But seemingly it's never been as marginalized as it is currently.

Of course, there are other "peripheral" sports that used to enjoy rampant popularity but now have far smaller followings. Thoroughbred racing and boxing are two that come immediately to mind. If one were to glance at the sports pages from the middle of the 20th century both boxing and the horses were huge, often dominating the column inches.

And though these two sports have clearly been relegated to second or, more accurately, third tier status there are still occasions during every year where the two sports garner guaranteed, significant attention - especially horse racing as the Triple Crown is always a featured, nearly must-see viewing for many sports fans on three late afternoon Saturdays in May and June.

Yet I recall track still having significant cache up to the 1980's. As a child growing up in the New York area, the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden - which are, indeed, the oldest continuously held sports event at that most storied of arenas - in the middle of winter used to attract a sizable media presence. Yet can anyone recall a single happening from this year's competition?

Track and field needs a signature event to generate interest outside of its increasingly shallow pool of fans so the general sports enthusiast will pay some attention. For so many years that event was the mile. Up until the middle 1980's this was the one race that would garner significant attention from the press in the United States.

Ever since England's Richard Webster ran the first officially timed mile (this is of some debate but it's generally accepted that the first accurately timed mile races occurred sometime after 1850) in 4:36.5 in 1865, the quest to break the four minute mark commenced. It wasn't until 1954 when another Englishman, Roger Bannister shaved 37 seconds off of Webster's mark and accomplished this feat with a run of 3:59.4. The current world record holder in the mile is Hicham El Guerrouj or Morocco who clocked in at 3.43.13 in 1999. Will there be a new strategy to promote the sub-3:40 mile to reinvigorate interest in middle distance races? Or perhaps seeing which woman will be the first to cross the 4:00 threshold in the event.

In addition to the mile being a tangible, relatable and less numeric - somehow it sounds more interesting than its literal metric equivalent, 1609 meters - race for fans to follow, the pursuit of lowering the mark also had that other crucial component that every sport needs. A rivalry.

Whether it was the two Swedes, Gundar Hagg and Arne Andersson in the 1940s trading record times or the last great rivalry in the mile, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett from England who waged a fierce battle in the early 1980s for mile supremacy, the mile had the good fortune of providing consistent dramatics in the form of one-on-one competition throughout the last century.

But in the last 30 or so years the mile has been contested at far fewer events (though the indoor mile is still run at the Millrose Games) as the 1500 meter race is now the de facto middle distance event that is standard at all major competitions including the Olympics, where the mile has never been run.

There have been other great track rivalries through the years. But for a rivalry to exist in track, there have to be significant races aside form the Olympics to sustain interest. The last time a sprint race sustained great interest from sports fans was in the late 1980s when American Carl Lewis and Canadian Ben Johnson dueled for world dominance in the 100 meter, perhaps the most valued of all races.

But the sports demon that has run roughshod over baseball and cycling - performance enhancing drugs - ruined that burgeoning drama as Johnson was caught cheating on numerous occasions (Carl Lewis was also found to have a banned substance in a blood test from 1988 but was cleared of any and all charges of intentional doping). And then we have the PED situation with Marion Jones and a host of others, increasing the danger that track, like the Tour de France, will become a permanent casualty of PED's (which makes Usain Bolt's records all the more special as there's never been a hint or merited accusation against the great Jamaican sprinter).

So aside from ridding the sport of steroids and promoting rivalries when available, what else can US track and field authorities do to further their sport here in America? For starters, there needs to be more aggressive marketing of the USA indoor and outdoor track and field championships, held in February and June, respectively. Since these occur in between other major sporting events - no major golf or tennis championships or league sports playoffs to contend with - there's at least a sliver of space to wiggle the sport into more fans' consciousness.

After all, the running race is perhaps sports at its most simple and pure - the image of man chasing man. It's foundational. In that context track is almost akin to Latin, a language taught for so many years and the basis of so many languages (and which is why those few who still study it are usually very articulate and have a superb vocabulary) but now is nearly extinct. Nearly every child races against a sibling, friend or themselves so it's also sport that can be appreciated at the earliest ages. Track deserves to have its few seconds in the spotlight in our overcrowded sports universe.

 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in Yahoo.com, MSNBC.com, and Tennis Week. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

Author Archive