On the State of Track and Field

By Steve McGill
Updated: October 22, 2005

Allyson Felix, Dwight Phillips, Jon Drummond, and Justin GatlinNORTH CAROLINA—Introduction

I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I for one am tired of always hearing about the sorry state of American Track & Field. The popularity of our sport, or lack thereof, has been an issue ever since I can remember, and I started to closely follow track in the early 1980’s. Though the USA did very well at the recent World Championships, the success on the track cannot serve to mask the seeming lack of popularity of the sport in the United States. So, what’s the deal? Do we need to be worried, or is everything okay?

Crisis? What Crisis?

Speaking strictly on the level of participation, the sport of Track & Field in America seems as healthy as it ever has. In USATF and AAU age-group track, the meets still last all weekend long with hundreds and sometimes thousands of kids competing on a regular basis. Getting kids to come out for track at the high school level doesn’t seem to me to be any more of a problem than it has ever been. Sure, we lose kids to other sports, but there are also plenty of kids who have significant athletic skills who choose track over baseball, lacrosse, and tennis – the spring sports with which Track traditionally competes for athletes. In most large public high schools, there is more of a problem with having too many athletes come out for track than there is with having too few. Athletes travel from all over the country to compete at meets like the Golden West in California, the Golden South in Florida, and the Nike Outdoor Championships in North Carolina. Such meets are well-publicized, well-attended, and filled with exciting race after exciting race.

And anyone who has attended or participated in the annual relay meets that take place every April, such as the Penn Relays Carnival in Philadelphia, The Texas Relays in Austin, the Drake Relays in Des Moines, or the Mt. Sac Relays in California, and witnessed the enormous amount of quality athletes who compete at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels, would have to wonder how there could be any viewpoint other than that Track & Field is alive and well in the United States. At all levels, the competition every year seems to get a bit stiffer, the qualifying standards for major competitions are being raised, and the number of athletes able to meet those standards continues to increase.

2005 200 meter world champion Allyson Felix

2005 200 meter world champion Allyson Felix

On the international level, the U.S. is still winning many medals despite the fact that so many other countries have made advancements in their training methods and programs, and despite the fact that a fairly large amount of foreign athletes are trained by American coaches. In the men’s 400 meters, for example, may experts assumed that, once Michael Johnson retired, US dominance would come to an end. But the US swept the medals in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and they nearly did so again at the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005. On the women’s side, once Marion Jones fell off, Lauryn Williams (in the 100 meter dash) and Allyson Felix (in the 200 meter dash) picked up right where Jones had left off. So, what’s the problem?

Did He Just Say “Track Bitchy”?

In one of the most infamous episodes in USA Track & Field history, sprinter Jon Drummond lies on the track in protest of being disqualified for false-starting in the 2003 World Championships

In one of the most infamous episodes in USA Track & Field history, sprinter Jon Drummond lies on the track in protest of being disqualified for false-starting in the 2003 World Championships

Oh yes he did. To quote a term from a coaching friend of mine, one of the reasons that Track & Field isn’t more popular is simply because many Americans are “track dumb,” and they are blissful in their ignorance. This point came home loud and clear to me during the 2003 World Championships, in the aftermath of Jon Drummond’s infamous moment of histrionic protest against being disqualified for a called false start that he fervently felt was called in error.

For those of you who don’t remember, Drummond lay prostrate on the track and refused to get up for a good long while, holding up the start of the race, unwilling to let an opportunity that he had trained all year for, and assumedly all his life for, fall by the wayside because of an official’s decision. Whether or not you agree with Drummond’s choice to refuse to exit the track gracefully is not the point here. I would aver that anyone who understands the sport of Track & Field would understand why he acted as he did, regardless of whether or not his extreme reaction was justified. In other sports, athletes get penalties or technical fouls for rules infractions; in track, you don’t even get the chance to compete. That can be a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re amped up and ready to shine, and you’ve traveled half-way across the world just to run this one race.

The next day, I was watching Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, which has been one of my favorite shows because I like the back-and-forth banter between Hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Well, after showing a clip of Drummond’s antics, Wilbon went on to describe Drummond’s display as being typically “track bitchy.” What did he mean? Exactly what it sounds like he meant: track athletes are soft, they’re whiners, they can’t deal with adversity, etc. I assume that Wilbon would have preferred that Drummond act more like a “man” by cussing out the officials like a football or basketball player would instead of crying and lying down on the track. Wilbon’s attitude, though, is typical of most American’s who don’t even acknowledge track’s existence during non-Olympic years. The only reason Drummond’s performance appeared on sports television news shows at all was because it provided good entertainment, it was amusing the way a bearded lady at the circus sideshow is amusing. Wilbon’s flippant remark awoke me to the fact that, on many levels, the average American sports fan doesn’t understand the first thing about track. Most Americans don’t follow any sports closely except for football, basketball, and, in some cases, baseball. They don’t understand how meets are scored, they don’t understand the team aspects of track, and the most glaring aspect of the average sports fan’s ignorance regarding track is that they don’t understand the nature of injuries in our sport.

American sports fans place a high premium on an athlete’s willingness to “play hurt.” Many of America’s greatest heroic athletic moments have arisen from the efforts of injured players. Moments come to mind such as Willis Reed dragging his cortisone-injected knee out of the tunnel and onto the court in the New York Knicks’ 1970 NBA Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Kirk Gibson sliding his leg along the base paths after hitting the game-winning home run in a World Series game in the early 1990’s, Donovan McNabb throwing four touchdown passes on a broken ankle in 2003, Michael Jordan dropping 35 on the Utah Jazz in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals despite suffering from multiple flu-like symptoms and needing help just to make it to the bench during timeouts. So, why, the average sports fan wants to know, do track athletes pull out of competitions because they feel “a twinge in their hamstring” or suffer from some other sort of relatively minor ailment? What these fans don’t understand is that the little twinge could become a strain, and the strain could become a pull, thereby ruining months and years worth of training, effectively flushing a dream down the toilet. In track, if you can’t compete at your best, then you basically can’t compete. All you would do is aggravate your injury and get beaten badly by the competition in the process. In track, you can’t “help the team” by playing hurt; particularly in relays, you can only hurt the team by playing hurt. In track, when it comes to injuries, you pretty much always have to err on the side of caution. The situation of Jamaica’s Asafa Powell would serve as a good example to prove my point. He broke the world record in the 100 meters in the early part of this past summer, but was too injured to compete at the World Championships later in the summer. Sprinting so fast in June prevented him from sprinting at all in August, so now he’s left with nothing to do but play the “If I had been there” game regarding the World Championships.

When’s the Track Meet On?

2005 100m and 200m world champion Justin Gatlin

2005 100m and 200m world champion Justin Gatlin

That’s a good question. Usually it’s on at 1:30 in the morning or some other ridiculous hour. In 2005, track coverage hit an all-time low in my opinion, as the World championships were not shown on any of the major television networks, nor even on any of the major sports networks. Nor even on any of the minor sports networks. The world championships, featuring such American greats as Justin Gatlin, Allen Johnson, Jeremy Wariner, Allyson Felix, and Lauryn Williams, were shown on the PAX channel – a channel that shows nothing but infomercials all day long. To add insult to injury, the week-long meet aired at 4:00 in the afternoon on most days, when most people were still at work, and only the highlights were shown on these tape-delayed telecasts. Much of the excitement that took place in the early rounds of many events wasn’t shown at all. To add more insult to more injury, track fanatics were given the option to view a live webcast on some internet channel for $4.95. Now you tell me, who wants to watch a track meet on a computer screen? Do NBA fans have to watch basketball games on a computer? Do NFL fans have to watch football games on a computer? You get my point here. Telling fans to watch the sport they love on a computer is insulting.

These days, track appears on TV less often than all the major team sports, but also less than such filler sports as auto racing, golf, figure skating, poker (yes, poker), bowling, and, your favorite and mine, beach volleyball. I personally don’t think that Track & Field will ever be a popular, mainstream sport in the USA for the simple fact that it isn’t TV-friendly, and there is really no way to make it so. There is too much down-time in a track meet for the modern viewer whose attention span decreases with every new technological gadget that comes out on the market. We live in the age of reality television now; our collective intellect is dwindling at a rapid pace, and our desire for instant gratification is soaring at an equally rapid pace. Ours isn’t the only sport suffering from this cultural malady that has infested our society, but it is definitely one of them. Track is a sport of nuance and subtlety; there are no jarring hits, end zone dances, nor any slam dunks to show on highlight reels. The various attempts that have been made over the years to make track more TV-friendly have all failed to one extent or another, but I think that’s more a reflection of the culture than it is of the sport. Soccer, for example, is another sport that has a large number of participants but has difficulty garnering television exposure. What I do think needs to happen, whether it creates more television interest or not, is that there has to be more major meets featuring track’s brightest stars held in America. As it stands now, all the “big” non-championship meets take place in Europe. If more international meets took place in America, the general public would have more opportunity to attend track meets, to get to know the athletes, and gain a basic familiarity with the sport.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

I don’t think there can be any doubt that the biggest threat to the future of Track & Field is the use of performance-enhancing drugs by its star athletes. Just like with Pete Rose betting on baseball, nothing damages a sport more than activity that compromises its integrity. The public must feel confident that the records being set and the medals being won are being won by athletes who play by the rules of the game. Otherwise, a situation develops where every record is looked upon as proof of cheating instead of being regarded as a remarkable accomplishment that resulted from hard work. It is very disappointing. And disheartening that a modern-day track fan can’t know for sure which athletes are clean and which are not, since, as it stands now, there are athletes, such as Kelly White, who have never even failed a drug test who are admitting, due to overwhelming circumstantial evidence, to having taken performance-enhancing drugs. There’s no need to conjecture as to what percentage of elite athletes are using illegal means to run faster, jump higher, or throw farther, but we can all agree that enough of them are doing it to cause what is becoming potentially irreparable damage to the sport.

While the avid track fan knows better than to believe that track is merely a “steroid sport,” the general public, which only hears about track when there’s another BALCO report on the news, or when another busted athlete comes clean, has no logical reason to take track seriously. USADA (United States Anti-Doping Association) is being very aggressive – over-aggressive, perhaps – in their attempts to clean up the sport, but I really don’t see what choice they have. Unfortunately, in this day and age of designer steroids and comprehensive performance-enhancement drug programs, assuming that everyone is guilty until proven innocent may be the only way to save the credibility of the sport. I just feel badly for the majority of athletes out there who are clean, who are doing the best they can to make the most of their ability, and have to be dragged into the pit of suspicion with the actual cheaters. My hope is that once we come out on the other side of this mess, the integrity of the sport will still be intact.

Show Me the Money

A wise man once said that love of money is the root of evil, and time has proven that he indeed made a good point. In the sport of Track & Field, money from corporate sponsorships, appearance bonuses, Grand Prix events and other similar reward-based programs has enabled many athletes to extend their careers well into their thirties. On the flipside, however, it has also increased the temptation to cheat, since the money only goes to the select few who end up on Olympic victory stands. In a sport where hundredths or even thousandths of a second can mean the difference between cashing checks and bouncing checks, the temptation to gain an unfair edge is quite obvious. The sad fact of the matter is that too many of our best athletes are struggling to make ends meet, working part-time or even full-time jobs in an attempt to support their own athletic careers. Again, if more major track meets were held in the U.S., and there was therefore more incentive for corporations to link themselves with athletes who could bring name recognition to their companies, there might be more money to go around for everybody.

After All Is Said and Done . . .

Dwight Phillips soars to victory in the 2004 Athens Olympics

Dwight Phillips soars to victory in the 2004 Athens Olympics

As track fans, athletes, and coaches, we can’t look at the problems of our sport without viewing them in the larger context of the societal ills that plague this country. Modern American culture is defined by greed, consumption, and impatience. The notion that hard work is its own reward is fading quickly as we become more and more results-oriented. Though we claim to admire hard work, it is concrete success that we worship. We praised the Boston Red Sox in 2004, for example, because they finally defeated the New York Yankees, not because of the effort they put forth in doing so. That same year, we criticized Shaq and Kobe when they lost to the less talented Detroit Pistons, not because they played selfishly in doing so. We all have to look ourselves in the mirror and come face to face with our own hypocrisy; otherwise, we will get so caught up in coming in first, making a lot of money, and proving our superiority over our fellow competitors, that we will lose sight of the real treasures athletics have to offer – the opportunity to overcome one’s own fears and self-doubts, the chance to develop lasting, meaningful relationships, and the basic joy that comes with being able to say “I did the best I could.”

I strongly feel that Track & Field will survive the entirety of its dark days, and that even these dark days are not as dark as they may seem to be. There will always be, as there has always been, coaches who are willing to sacrifice their personal time in order to work with athletes who need their guidance. Similarly, there will always be athletes who are willing to sacrifice time that could be spent socializing with friends in order to maintain their training regimen. There will always be those who are willing to give themselves to the good of the sport, and, for that reason, the sport can never die.