Track & Field Is Still A Stepchild Sport

By Steve McGill
Updated: May 21, 2006

Justin Gatlin  & Asafa Powell

Justin Gatlin & Asafa Powell

NORTH CAROLINA — While watching the Adidas Track Classic this past weekend, I got smacked in the face with another dose of reality. Excited that a track meet was being televised by ESPN, the major sports television channel, I sat down on the edge of my couch to view the competition.

Three times during the telecast, the coverage was interrupted by a Barry Bonds update. Every time Bonds came to the plate in the San Francisco Giants’ game, ESPN cut straight to it, no matter what was going on in the track meet. Can you say rude?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but tuning into track meets is one of my ways to avoid all the Bonds hype. I don’t care if he’s on steroids, I don’t care if he lacks people skills, and I don’t care if he passes Babe Ruth in the most-homeruns-of-all-time derby.

When I tune into a track meet, I don’t want to see somebody swinging a baseball bat. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?

I can’t imagine a telecast of a baseball game being temporarily interrupted to cut to a 100 meter showdown between Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell, could you? That’s what I’m talking about: track is still a stepchild sport in the USA, notwithstanding all the international stars it produces.

With all those preemptions for Bonds’ at-bats, it was hard to stay focused on the meet. Especially with the LeBron show going on at the same time on another channel. I found myself sticking with the track meet out of a sense of duty and moral obligation to the sport I love.

But trust me, seeing Barry Bonds’ big head on my television screen was really getting on my nerves.

Earlier in the day, four hours before the Adidas meet came on, a re-broadcast of the Penn Relays appeared on NBC. The Penn Relays took place three weeks ago. So why was it being re-broadcast yesterday? Because when it first came on, the broadcast didn’t start until a half-hour after it was supposed to.

Why did the broadcast start late?

Because the hockey game that came on before it went into overtime. And you know how hockey games are. A game that goes into overtime might last forever. Once I saw all those fools skating around on that ice, I knew it was time to turn the channel.

The Penn Relays is not only the biggest relay carnival in the nation, it’s also the biggest track meet in the nation. No meet in the world has more participants than the Penns. No meet in the country draws a bigger crowd.

Yet we couldn’t even get an hour’s worth of tape-delayed TV coverage without getting bumped by a hockey game. I guess if you want to see the Penn Relays, you better buy a plane ticket or gas up and go.

Maybe if co world-record holders Gatlin and Powell do develop a genuine rivalry – one based on head-to-head battles, not just comparing personal bests – track will receive the kind of attention that the “major” sports in the US receive.

These two dynamic sprinters have the talent, charisma, and competitive fire that is essential in all great rivalries. They have the potential to make track an interesting sport to the casual sports fan, not just to us track nuts, even in a non-Olympic year such as this one.

I would like to think that Gatlin and Powell will do for track what Magic and Bird did for the NBA in the ‘80s. They are scheduled to meet a few times this summer, so maybe it will happen. If not, I’ll just keep checking for races between the Barry Bonds at-bats.