Cazeneuve Nails It

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?

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2 Responses to Cazeneuve Nails It

  1. Wonderful commentary. Back in 1972, Bil (correct spelling) Gilbert wrote a landmark article in Sports Illustrated, “Gleanings From a Troubled Time.” Gilbert’s point, boiled down, was that the farther you get from the individual, the farther you get from joy. And, consequently, the more the audience loses interest.

    In New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, there were endless opportunities to compete – in his excellent book, “Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Ideas of Arthur Lydiard,” Keith Livingstone hints at the nature of the track scene then. A reporter once asked Lydiard how his athletes stood the “pain of training.” Arthur at first didn’t understand – then, catching the reporter’s drift, he said, “We ENJOYED our training!”

    In track and field today, there are simply too many ulterior motives – too much ego, the greatest joy-killer of all. Frankly, I’m starting to get a little bored and disgusted with “Track Town.” Take Jordan Hasay – note how the press, even the local press in Eugene, immediately dropped all mention of her after her disappointing performances at USATF. Too much ego there – “How good have you made us feel about ourselves lately, Jordan?”

    I quoted Bil Gilbert liberally in an article not long ago. At the end of his 1972 piece, he describes the wonderful atmosphere of a local track meet on the East Coast. Track today suffers from too much top-heavy brouhaha and not enough richness and breadth at the base. Track is a vertical sport, narrow, with far too little organization locally. Propping up track at the college and professional levels never will work. It will take something like what existed in New Zealand 50 years ago – a wonderful local spirit, and many local opportunities. A Little League or a youth soccer for track and field. But then, the eminences at the top just can’t get very interested. Short-term glory is what they’re after, not wonderful experiences for many individuals. It’s all about ego, ego, ego.

  2. Leonard Jansen says:

    While all the points made are true, there is also something to be said for the fact that other major shifts have occured.
    1) There is an enormous variety of entertainment on cable TV/internet/etc. It’s also considerably cheaper than the cost of, say, a Millrose ticket.
    2) The demise of the indoor circuit probably also has something to do with the shift in demographics in the cities. As the middle class has either been squeezed out or squeezed to financial death in the larger cities, there is less incentive to make the effort and bear the cost to see a meet.
    3) To a large degree, many of the people who are potential track fans are now road running participants. It’s probably not an accident that the marathon and some other road races have a fairly strong following – people tend to be most interested in their own experiences or those of someone they actually know. Furthermore, road racing is something that many people do with family members or friends, often it’s just a social gathering with exercise. Try that in the 800 meters.
    4) Marty Liquori once said something to the effect that “Road running is rock ‘n roll and track is Carnegie Hall.” He was right and many more people have banged out bad rock than have tried their hand at classical music. The analogy is pretty straight-forward to running. Track, as a participation sport for the average person is daunting – it’s intense, the watch is unforgiving and you are going to HURT. Road racing allows much more latitude. You can also dress up like Batman and run your local 5k if that’s your idea of a good time.

    Some of the recent “pole vaults at the mall” – type events are a good idea. So are the road miles and even road sprints. Not a cure-all, but at least it gets something out to people who might otherwise forget that track even exists.