Track, beguiling and still behind the times
Posted On July 26, 2022
Oh, track and field. It flits in and out of our consciousness every so often, teasing with performances not to be forgotten, giving us the best the human body can possibly generate – and then recedes to the shadows, so Steven A can unleash one more point about LeBron James.
That’s where we are again, on the heels of Eugene’s hosting of track’s world championships, the biggest track-and-field-only event in the history of the nation. We’re wondering about the place of track in the nation’s sporting psyche, wondering what it will take to elevate it, wondering how Eugene did and what it could have done better.
I didn’t attend, scared away to a degree by evening-session (preferred) tickets of $200-300 and a couple of quotes of $600 for a night in a stray motel room in Eugene.
Competitively, it appeared the meet was a success, from Sydney McLaughlin’s world-record blitz in the women’s 400 intermediate hurdles – it took me back to seeing the breakout of Edwin Moses at the 1976 Olympic trials on the same grounds – to Noah Lyles’ thunderous 200 meters to Allyson Felix’s career-capping sprints to Mondo Duplantis’ climactic world mark in the pole vault.
It’s not for me to assess Hayward Field – I haven’t yet been to the Phil Knight-inspired renovation – but it’s been described as breathtaking yet not as functional as it might be. I still can’t fully conjure it, having been weaned on the endearing old wooden grandstands of yesteryear’s Hayward. Regardless, the new iteration is why Eugene got the first world championships on American soil.
You can debate whether that was a good thing. The Washington Post flatly concluded that having it in Eugene wasn’t the optimum way to expand the reach of the sport. It’s something of a Catch-22: Eugene probably has the greatest native interest in the sport (notwithstanding some evening sessions that didn’t sell out) so it’s a no-brainer as a host. Yet, perhaps that’s not the way for track to spread its wings.
The voluminous comments on that Post story covered the full gamut of possibilities, some salient, some inane. One writer postulated that Eugene was too far out of the way for potential fans, a backwater outpost nobody would choose over Florida, California or Hawaii as a destination. If you can’t recognize that Oregon in July is a better vacation spot than any of those three, I can’t help you.
Would, say, New York be a clearly better choice? More accessible, yes, maybe more local media interest, but in the end, is the value there? Maybe if ESPN’s proximity somehow creates more coverage.
One of track’s old problems, how to promote itself, again resurfaced. I watch a fair amount of NBC and MSNBC programming and I never saw a smidge of advertisement. Maybe I missed it. You’d think there would be worth in cross-promotion of the Olympics, which NBC trips all over itself to prop up.
Even the TV schedule was scattered. If you were into the meet enough, you knew to go to Peacock or CNBC. I’m not among the cognoscenti anymore, if I ever was, so I settled for the delayed broadcast on NBC.
About the promotion, Sebastian Coe, the former Brit middle-distance great who heads track’s world governing body, told the Post, “It’s not been made easier by the fact that a time when we probably should as a sport have been focusing on engagement and promoting the athletes, it didn’t happen in the way it should have been done.”
Track has a long haul ahead, probably longer than it did back when Eugene hosted three straight Olympic trials (1972-80), or farther back, when meets with Cold-War Russia drew huge crowds in the U.S. Think of how society has changed since then. We’re a get-it-now people, from Google to iPhones, too impatient to wait. Track isn’t like that, with its heats and distance runs of strategy and buildup and progression. It’s probably not a coincidence that another sport that develops incrementally, baseball, finds itself on the back burner of America’s sporting priorities.
Even the wide array of disciplines in track and field may work against it in luring fans. What possible kinship does the shot put have with the 1,500 meters?
Meanwhile, the NFL and NBA have fallen into sort of a soap-opera persona that aids the enterprise and fuels endless discussion on ESPN. Whether that’s merely a byproduct of their popularity or a cause of it is the question. What about Baker Mayfield? Deshaun Watson? Is Aaron Rodgers happy? Why didn’t Kevin Durant work with the Nets? What to make of Kyrie Irving? And LeBron, what about LeBron?
And of course, it’s also relatively easy to gamble on those sports.
“It’s a cluttered, complicated marketplace,” Coe said.
For the grizzled among us, the angst over track’s future rekindles memories of discussions we had decades ago. This is not a new dilemma. Remember 1992, when Eugene, jilted for the previous two Olympic trials and feeling it was owed this one, lost out to a party-hearty interloper – New Orleans? That was a way to try to explore a new frontier, to try to shake American track out of its comfort zone.
Candidly, I’m not sure widespread interest in track and field’s great charms is ever going to happen in our country. It’s an acquired taste, and it’s getting late for acquiring.