This is the time I normally post something about what happened yesterday, what’s going on today, and the headlines from yesterday. The Diamond League resumes with the Athletissima in Lausanne, Switzerland, with live webcasts available at UniversalSports.com (USA, $2.99) and CBC Sports (Canada, free).
But in the big picture, none of that really matters, because track and field is in trouble. It’s not going away, but it’s…ugh.
Case in point: an ESPN.com column asks the question Can Allyson Felix save track and field? And the answer is no. No one person, not even Usain Bolt, can save track and field. Only track and field can save track and field.
Yesterday Brian Cazeneuve, Sports Illustrated’s understudy to Tim Layden for Olympic and track and field coverage, published a deep and probing column about track and field’s myriad problems as a professional sport. It’s nominally about the Millrose Games moving out of Madison Square Garden and into the Armory, but it’s really about where track has gone wrong in the last thirty years. You really must read it, the whole thing. It’s the best analysis of track’s problems I’ve ever read.
It’s very odd that an article featured at SportsIllustrated.com’s front page hasn’t gotten wide attention in the track world. As of right now, there are no links to it at Trackandfieldnews.com, or Letsrun.com, or Runnersworld.com, or Runningtimes.com. Besides yours truly, the Twitter world has barely mentioned it. People like to blame others for their problems, but Cazeneuve wants us to look at ourselves.
[Millrose's move is] one more sign that a sport I grew up loving has grown old, tired and, most of all, lazy before my eyes.
I’ve seen a lot of criticisms of track people, and made plenty myself, but this is among the first times I’ve heard the term lazy used. I think he’s totally justified in doing so.
A self-professed track geek yet not completely immersed in it (as most track writers are), he lays the blame squarely at the feet of the people in the sport itself: the athletes and administrators, but most especially the meet organizers and agents. Their narrow and short-term self-interest, as exemplified by the absence of rivalries, is destroying the sport. And really, it’s been going on that way almost since the day track was allowed to be openly professional.
…rivalries are the lifeblood of any sport…But check out track meets and see how the best athletes duck and dodge one another until they absolutely have to toe the lines at the Olympics or world championships. Some invitational meets have separate sprint heats (or even a 1,500-meter run and a separate mile run) without finals so two runners won’t have to face each other and risk harming their reputations (i.e. future appearance fees) because of a loss to a rival.
I remember talking to Renaldo Nehemiah a few years ago about this…He waxed poetic about his great rivalry with Greg Foster and always knew the exact number of head-to-head meetings as they extended by the dozens and fans everywhere got to see how exciting the hurdles could be by watching the best drive the best to be better. He also talked about the rivalry between Gatlin, then his client, and Jamaica’s Asafa Powell, the top gun before the emergence of Usain Bolt. When were they actually going to race?
That was the million-dollar question, Nehemiah told me, noting that a promoter with deep pockets would have to pay handsome appearance fees to get them to put their reputations on the line at the same time. “There are many people who are trying to benefit at the expense of Justin and Asafa. It’s not a question of whether both men want to race; it’s about managements making sure that they are not taken advantage of.”
Track gradually become openly professional in the early 80s, and by 1990 John Walker proclaimed the US indoor circuit dead. In 1991 things got so bad that Track and Field News dedicated an entire issue to the question “What if they gave a track meet and nobody came?” And, of course, now we think those were the good old days.
Another Cazeneuve line that gets right to the heart of things:
The catchphrase that gained popularity in the ’80s and ’90s was that track and field was becoming more “professional.” But professionalism has obligations as well as spoils, and somewhere along the way, the sport’s professionals lost sight of the values that enabled this new professionalism.
Really, there is only one bona fide American star who really understands what his responsibilities are to track and field, and that’s the guy you see at the front of the article: Bernard Lagat. And he didn’t even grow up here (which might be why he brings a different perspective).
I’ve thought for quite some time that track and field at its highest levels has two endemic and debilitating problems.
One is that our sport is not governed by business people but by politicians. The IAAF and USATF are elected bodies. You sometimes get decent people in politics who are interested in the public good, but they’re always the minority. USATF is like the House of Representatives–often clueless, plagued by infighting–and the IAAF is like the Senate, an exclusive social club whose main priority is maintaining exclusivity and the perks that come with it. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to give a nickel for the whole lot of ‘em (either track’s governance or Congress), and it will always be such.
Two is that track people are not team players. They are the most individual of all athletes. They trust no one, are in it for no one but themselves. They cannot imagine a situation where they would sacrifice for the good of the team, because if they were that kind of person they’d be playing soccer or football or basketball (as nearly all pro tracksters have the physical ability to do so). There are exceptions, but they are, well, the exceptions that prove the rule.
Yes, there are users and manipulators in track, because those people are everywhere, but athletes and agents and meet promoters all have a responsibility to we the fans first and foremost, because those people cannot survive without us. And isn’t that exactly what is happening?