by Pitch Johnson
Most close followers of track & field are still feeling the glow of the hugely successful presentation of “athletics” at the Olympic Games in London.
The competitions were great, the crowds filled the stadium morning and night and deafened the other spectators with their enthusiasm, especially for the British athletes.
About 1.4 million people attended track & field during those 9 days in the 80,000-seat stadium. According to the BBC, more than 2 billion people worldwide watched the men’s 100-meter final, and the Games broke all kinds of TV records in Britain and abroad.
In short, track & field was the center of much of the world’s attention for 9 days. Yet most of us have that sinking feeling, well put in an interview with Reuters by Bob Greifeld, “Well, why can’t this happen more often?”
Greifeld is chair of the board of the USATF Foundation, and his day job is CEO of NASDAQ. Something has to be done, Greifield also told Reuters. The old, too easy, saying by track fans has been “The circus comes to town and the circus goes away.”
We have to look to colleges as a key place to rekindle interest in track & field in the United States, where track gets lost among all the other sports, especially at the college level. The origins of the sport in the U.S. lie in colleges, which provided our primary source of Olympic athletes for many years.
Most present college track meets, before the Conference and NCAA Regional meets, are invitationals designed to develop and showcase the stars who will be moving to the national level.
The dual meet, the track team of one school against another has mostly gone by the board, although some of the old, full-length, traditional meets, like Stanford/Cal, USC/UCLA and Michigan/Ohio State (indoors) are held, but with little notice by the press, students or the public.
There is active talk of reviving the Big 10 vs. Pac-12 meet after the conference meets are complete, as part of the inter-conference TV deal.
Dual track meets, if present rules are followed, are too long for most fans or TV and have too many events for the available athletes because of the reduced number of scholarships available.
The publicists of the athletic departments don’t normally even give a starting time and just say “all day,” a bit lazy, but not too far from the truth. Without TV coverage and revenue and small attendance, track & field is a money-losing sport, not even worth charging for at some schools, and is in danger of eventually being dropped in some places, as it has at the men’s level at former powerhouses San José State, Oregon State and Northwestern.
The non-stars love dual meets because many of them have a chance to score points, and the stellar athletes also have the great feeling of being on a team and winning or losing as a team. Students and fans, in the past at least, have come out to see one school against another, especially the traditional rivalries.
We need to consider a compact dual meet (proposed chart follows) which can be run off within 3 hours, shown live on TV and will have a final score at the end.
Women have added a lot to the sport and the 3 hours could include both a men’s and women’s meet.
It is tough to cut out some present events, but a good interesting meet could be held with the 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, 5000 (1 race with both sexes), and the 110 and 400 hurdles.
The field events would include shot, discus, javelin, high jump, long jump and pole vault.
There would be 4 x 100 relays to open the track events and 4 x 400s to close the day. That is 8 individual track events, 2 relays and 6 field events, for a total of 16 events in each meet.
With doublers in several events, 25 men and 25 women could make up the teams. That’s a lot of people, but the 18 women’s scholarships and 12.6 men’s can be split, and with a few guys from the football team in some schools, other sports and non-scholarship walk-ons, the numbers could work.
The 10 men’s and 10 women’s track events—with the 5000 as a common event—could be run within 3 hours if the 19 track events were to run off promptly.
The field events run simultaneously with those on the track and can be viewed intermittently on TV. The pole vault might have to get underway before the start of the running events, but with two pits, could start at the same time as the running events so that the meet would have one starting time.
SUGGESTION FOR A COMPACT DUAL MEET SCHEDULE, MEN & WOMEN
Afternoon Meets, on TV
(field event times dependent on configuration of stadium)
Track Events Field Events
1:05 4x1 1:05 PV (2 pits)
1:15 1500 1:30 SP
1:40 400 1:30 JT
1:55 100 1:30 HJ
2:10 110H 2:30 LJ
2:20 800 2:30 DT
2:45 5000 (run together)
3:45 4x4 (to be run no sooner than finish of all field events)
Scoring: 5-3-1 for individual events, 5-0 for relays. Total points each sex: 136 (in case of tie, winner of 4x4 wins meet)
Nothing much can happen until the track coaches and athletic directors get interested in changing track & field. The chance to make some income will be of interest to the ADs, and the coaches will have to believe they can field good teams and be competitive with a broad range of athletes.
Some Title IX problems would be solved if more women came out for track as the result of the increased emphasis. The NCAA, however, will have to see this as important to the sport and increase the number of permitted competitions.
The effort to rejuvenate college track via compact dual meets will require a champion, most likely a coach or an AD from a school that has a strong track program. Running, jumping and throwing things are the oldest forms of sporting competition. With additional work by USATF this classic sport can and should have a new life in the United States.
[Pitch Johnson was a quartermiler at Stanford, class of ’50. He has been to a dozen Oympics and a dozen World Championships.]