The state of the sport is never far from the minds of its most accomplished practitioners, for they are children of the game fully in the thrall of its embrace. This past weekend in Seattle Brooks Shoes brought together 135 of the sports budding new generation for a celebration of youthful competition at the Brooks PR Invitational. Friday before the meet, however, several of the top professionals sponsored by Brooks met with members of the press for an open-ended discussion of any and all things running. Among the questions asked of Gabby Grunewald, Garrett Heath, Katie Mackey and Nick Symmonds was, “If you could change just one thing about the sport, what would it be?”
Not surprisingly, runners are a politically savvy group, always have been. Among today’s pros few have been as politically outspoken as five-time U.S. 800-meter champion Nick Symmonds, who recently signed with Brooks. He took first crack at the leading question.
“The one thing I’d like to see is for USATF to govern everything but professional track and field,” said the 2013 World Championship 800-meter silver medallist. “Like the USGA is to the PGA (in golf). That would be the magical fix, not to have a not-for-profit organization control the professional side of the sport. Instead, push for a for-profit series of meets to professionalize this semi-pro sport. USATF should be in juniors, masters and team selection only, but they make their money from the pro side.”
Former Stanford All-American and 2013 U.S. road mile champion Garrett Heath looked across the Atlantic Ocean for his change.
“I wish there would be more meets in the U.S. modeled on the smaller meets in Europe,” explained the 2013 U.S. Road Mile champion. “They are held in small towns, and are more like social gatherings than long, drawn out track meets. They have bands, beer gardens and food, anything to bring people in.”
2014 American indoor 3000-meter champion Gabby Grunewald backed Nick’s suggestion, then added to Garrett’s.
“Nick is on the right track with the PGA model. And I’d piggyback Garrett’s idea for a U.S. circuit, but I’d put the meets in the five biggest cities and connect them to change how the sport is presented. Something like the American Track League is trying to start.”
Finally, Katie Mackey, silver medalist on the USA’s 4 X 1500 meter squad at the 2014 IAAF World Relay Championships in the Bahamas, returned her focus to Europe for the one change she’d like to see made.
“I really love the European meets, too. They are so much fun with live bands, fireworks, drinks, food. People like to be entertained. I really do think track and field is the most exciting sport to watch. With the right atmosphere it could really take off. And there are some good steps already happening.”
It’s a tale of two sports these days for running and track & field, the best of times and the worst of times. Performances are better than ever, but the sport’s impact on the greater culture is much less than in previous times. It was somewhat disheartening that the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and its one-year anniversary both made the cover of Sports Illustrated while Meb Keflezighi’s emotional first-American-male-win in 31 years didn’t.
One reason for this, according to Nick Symmonds, is the fragmentation of running’s model.
“Unfortunately, even with more training groups it’s still very much an individual sport,” said Symmonds, who is currently healing from a knee injury, the first in his otherwise durable career. “Trying to set up the 4 X 800 in Boston this winter (at New Balance Indoor Grand Prix) was very difficult. Everyone is looking out for #1, but that’s the sport we live in.”
“The 4 X 800 was neat this winter,” concurred Garrett Heath. “Maybe indoors is the way to do that, because it is more low key.”
“How great would it be to go to a Grand Slam model,” asked Symmonds rhetorically. “Four Grand Slam events, four major meets in Asia, Europe, Australia and the USA where the whole world would tune in for one week four times a year with the top eight athletes in each event. To have that consistency…
“If we could form an athlete’s union powerful enough. But getting 1000 athletes from 200 countries is difficult to organize. If the athletes said, ‘we won’t compete’, that would change it. But that ‘s why I like the Grand Slam model. There is no cohesiveness, no place for fans to follow the sport. USATF is tasked with too much. I’ve been hard on them, but it won’t change — the system incentivizes running fast times, mainly for qualifying for national championships. There are only one or two meets per year where how you place is all that matters.”
The next day at the Brooks PR Invitational at Renton Memorial Stadium a slew of meet records fell along with one national mark in the girl’s two-mile run. Bethan Knights of Northwood High School in Irvine, California rallied back in the final 50 meters to overtake Westport, Connecticut super soph Hannah DeBalsi who had motored by Knights on the backstretch of the last lap on her way to a seeming victory. The national record, 9:53.53, came as a result of their rousing competition, and led Hannah DeBalsi to the sophomore record just a step behind Knights (9:55.05).
With more shoe companies sponsoring more high school aged competitions, greater awareness of the type of training required to excel, and internet sites like Flotrack , RunnerSpace, and USATF.tv streaming competitions and creating feature pieces on the athletes, the overall quality of athletic performance has advanced markedly over the last decade. The question is, how to take those improvements in performance and translate them into increased visibility for the sport? It’s same question soccer asked itself for years in the U.S. Now look at state of “the beautiful game”.
“These kids are so confident and independent,” remarked coach Lisa Taylor, one of the Brooks PR chaperones from Traverse City, Michigan. “We used to be afraid to talk with our opponents. On one field we had over 100 kids. If we could harness the power in those hearts and legs and bodies…”
Yes, if only. If you have solution ideas, please join the conversation in the comments section below.