FERGUSON, MO. – THE GAP BETWEEN LIVING AND STAYING

Unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

Unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

As civil unrest continues to tear apart my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri in the aftermath of last Saturday’s shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, I ran across a story I wrote, but never published, in 1996 back before personal blogs were around for just these kind of closely-held thoughts.

(Note:  this is not a running related post, so you may bail out here with that information in hand)

Back in the mid-1990s the country was in the opposing throes of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson verdicts while trying to digest the meaning and value of the Million Man March.  In the ensuing years many other challenges and difficulties, both domestic and international, have arisen on the track of public consciousness.  But through it all, and here again with the suddenness of a piercing bullet, the issue of race has erupted to remind us how it  remains the central hurdle in America’s path toward the fulfillment of her founding charter.

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PRESENTATION MODEL

After last week’s 2014 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, California the sport is again engaged in a dialogue regarding presentation venues.  Eugene versus Sacramento is the current exchange with Indianapolis, Des Moines, and Palo Alto also in the conversation as recent championship host sites.

2008 Olympic Trials at Eugene's Hayward Field

2008 Olympic Trials at Eugene’s Hayward Field

Eugene is Eugene, Tracktown USA.  Say what you will about Big Swoosh, the folks in Oregon understand track and field, and know how to present it.  The 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene felt like a major sporting event.  The stands were full, and a fan festival was erected right outside to entertain and inform the casual fan.

By comparison, despite the attendance figures released –- 32,783 over four days –- Sacramento’s Hornet Stadium on the campus of Sacramento State University looked consistently empty on the backstretch, and only two-thirds to three-quarters filled on the homestretch throughout the four days of competition.  Some of that may be attributed to the heat that bakes Sacramento each summer.  Who but the most rabid fans want to sit out in triple-digit heat for hours on end? (Though it was only in the 80s till the final day).

Others point out that Hornet Stadium is larger than Hayward Field , 21,000 capacity versus 10,500 (though expandable to 21,000).  So while it might seem emptier, there may in fact be more people in attendance than one realizes.  This argument only reminds us of the role perception plays and how important staging and presentation is. Continue reading

PORK STEAKS AND PRO MEETS

Pork Steaks on the grill

Pork Steaks on the grill

Being a native Midwesterner I grew up on backyard summer barbecues where a particular grilling favorite in St. Louis was the delectable pork steak.  But what made the pork steak so good was the corn on the cob, baked beans, and potato salad that went with it. Those side dishes added flavor, spice  and textural contrasts against which to savor the main course.

Well, it is the presentation of compatible athletic tastes and textural delights that has always been one of the track and field’s greatest appeals.   Today, two of the best T&F meets in the world arrive on the calendar, the Exxon Mobil Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, and the beginning of the 2014 NCAA Outdoor T&F Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Both meets have compelling story lines, but I wonder if my viewing will reflect a recent watching of two other top meets on TiVo?

Last week I re-watched coverage of the SEC Track & Field Championships on ESPNU, then immediately reviewed the Prefontaine Classic from NBC Sports. Surprisingly, what stood out was how much better the SEC presentation was than the Pre coverage. Not in terms of performances, camera angles or announcing. Obviously, the world-class performances in Eugene were superior to the SEC races, just as the fields in Oslo represent the very best track & field talent the world has to offer. No, what stood out was how the narrative thread of team-based competition throughout the SEC program gave coherence and meaning to the coverage that was totally missing in Eugene at Pre.

At the SEC’s in Lexington, Kentucky Dwight Stones and Larry Rawson presented the team element very usefully on ESPNU, while the efforts of Tom Hammond, Ato Boldon, Craig Masback and Dwight Stones for NBC at the Pre meet came in the service of unconnected, stand-alone events.  While every race at the SEC’s had an individual champion and particular story line, the linking element of team competition gave the meet a competitive arc and payoff for viewers to latch onto and follow.

Galen Rupp goes 26:44.36 seconds to break his own American record at 10,000m.

Galen Rupp goes 26:44.36 seconds to break his own American record at 10,000m at Pre Meet.

On the other hand, while the Pre Classic produced a string of world-class performances, led by Galen Rupp’s American record over 10,000 meters, what stood out was the lack of any narrative thread beyond that. It was all a bunch of individual snapshots, not a building drama. Each non-sprint was staged as a series of predetermined paced laps with only the final lap, perhaps two in the case of Rupp, turning into a full out competition. It was hard not to fast forward to the moments of actual engagement as, once again, we were reminded why track and field has lost contact with the casual sports fan.  Continue reading

A TRIPLE CROWN FOR THE MILE?

Even as California Chrome‘s bid for horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 36 years came to a thudding halt in yesterday’s 146th Belmont Stakes, the outdoor track season swept into full summer swing last Thursday from sea to shining sea with plenty of action on the enameled plain in between.

Eric Avila wins Jim Ryun Festival

Eric Avila wins Jim Ryun Festival

In San Diego, Eric Avila and A.J. Acosta, two former area high school stars who have been beset by bad fortune in recent years, returned to top form to cap off the Jim Ryun Festival of Miles at the San Diego High School track.  Avila blasted a near 10-second PR 3:56.89 to edge out Acosta’s 3:57.07 in front of a small but enthusiastic gathering that came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jim Ryun’s first high school sub-4  minute mile, a crowd that included many of track’s former stars from SoCal.

Eric Finan leads four sub-4s in Concord, Mass.

Eric Finan edges out New Zealand’s Hamish Carson (blue), Providence College’s Julian Oakley and Leo Manzano in Concord, Mass.

 

Back east In Concord, Massachusetts Eric Finan of Team USA Minnesota joined Avila in the sub-4 club, his 3:58.73 leading three other men sub-4 at the 6th Adrian Martinez Classic. New sponsor Hoka One One brought in Olympic 1500m silver medalist Leo Manzano as the star attraction, but Leo could only manage fourth place (3:59.31) in the tightly contested race.

 

 

Jordan McNamara captures his second FOM title in St. Louis

J Mac captures his second FOM title in St. Louis in record time

And in St. Louis, Missouri Jordan McNamara of Nike OTC Elite posted a 3:54.27 clocking to take down Leo Manzano’s 2009 event record (3:55.29) in the seventh edition of the Nike Festival of Miles. It was JMac’s second win on the St. Louis University High School track.  He captured his first FOM title in 2011.

In all there were 10 men under 4:00 on the same night, two in San Diego, four each in Concord and St. Louis.  And while all three events showcased excellent competition, giving fans much to appreciate and applaud, what also stands out is the parochial nature of it all. Even the name Festival of Miles shows how blinkered and uncoordinated the sport continues to be.

“The Jim Ryun event looks fun, though I was a little disappointed in the name choice,” wrote Ben Rosario, impresario behind the seven-year old Nike Festival of Miles in St. Louis. “But it is what it is.”

But why is it what it is? Continue reading

HOW IMPORTANT ARE HEROES?

jim-ryunSI   There will be an interesting test this Thursday evening in San Diego as the running community gathers to celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jim Ryun’s first high school sub-4:00 mile.  Local leaders Paul Greer, Tracy Sundlun and Josh Cox joined with Jim Ryun to stage the celebration at the former Balboa Stadium – now home to the San Diego High School Cavers – where Jim ran one of his most iconic races as a high school senior.

It was at the 1965 AAU National Track & Field Championships where the lanky senior from Wichita East High School in Kansas lined up against a truly world-class field in front of 20,000 fans (when track could draw that kind of crowd outside the confines of Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.)

On the heels of Dr. Roger Bannister‘s celebrated first sub-4:00 mile in 1954, Ryun became the twelfth member of the exclusive sub-4 club as a high school junior on June 5, 1964.  Running 3:59.0 while finishing eighth at the Compton Invitational just six weeks after his 17th birthday Ryun became a national sensation.  The following year in San Diego Ryun not only notched another sub-4:00 mile, he WON the national championship in an American record 3:55.3!  And he did it by out-gunning the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists from Tokyo 1964, Peter Snell of New Zealand and Josef Odlozil of Czechoslovakia, and then American record holder Jim Grelle!  It was the performance of a generation, and still resonates a half-century later.

“Imagine an American high school kid doing that today,” marveled Marty Liquori, himself a member of the five-man U.S. high school sub-4:00 club. “An American  record in the national championship against the Olympic champion?  It would be impossible.” Continue reading

CITIUS, ALTIUS, WHO-IUS

Hellickson Family of Hinckley, Oh. awaiting arrival of Katey

Hellickson Family of Hinckley, Oh. awaiting arrival of Katey

While announcing at the finish line of last weekend’s 37th Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon, Half, and 10K I began chatting with the Hellickson family from Hinckley, Ohio who were awaiting their daughter, Katey, who was running the marathon. With their signs and enthusiasm the Hellicksons rooted for all the runners who came across the line, and it got me to thinking.

Endlessly we’ve been told that running is a participation-based sport rather than spectator-friendly one. But those who grew up in the first running boom know full well that running had a tremendous spectator base when local heroes were the stars of the sport. Only through the last 25 years and the East African domination have we lost that thread of interest.

Rather than individual brands like Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar, we’ve been fed an endless string of East Africans who are staged anonymously to run against the clock with the aid of pace setters. But rooting for a time rather than a person is inherently less meaningful and appealing.

We saw how impactful a rooting interest can be with Meb Keflezighi’s win at the Boston Marathon in April.  And though he didn’t perform up to hopes, look at the buzz Mo Farah generated for the Virgin Money London Marathon the week before that.

Citius, altius, fortius is all well and good, but any sport has to begin with who-ius, who are you rooting for, not what are you rooting for.

Boston crowd cheers Meb's win

Boston crowd cheers Meb’s win

If Boston had been a paced time-trial there is no way Meb would have won.  And if London had not been a time-trial you wonder how differently Mo might have fared. In that sense, straight up competition allows the improbable to become possible. But more than that, the sport needs to pit Him versus Him, Her versus Her, Them versus Them. Make it personal. Wrap the audience up in the who of it all, not the what.

We see this in boxing all the time. Many of the premier lighter weight division boxers hail from Latin America. While they speak no English, it doesn’t deter the sport from generating pay-per-view interest, because the promoters actively market mano a mano competitions. And while golf is full of stats like who hits the ball farthest, the only real stat is who won the tournament? Continue reading

2014 BOSTON ANALYSIS

Meb Boston 2014     How could the professional women in Boston produce a nearly two minute, 2:18:57, course record this past Monday at the 118th Boston Marathon, while the equally powerful men’s pro field only manage a 2:08:37, some five and a half minutes off the 2011 course record? It’s the mystery of racing, and the reason that pure, un-paced competition is so much more compelling than time-trialing — where everyone knows what’s ahead, the only question being whether the time can be attained or not. If ever there was a case for competition, Boston 2014 was it.

But let’s look deeper into the 2014 Boston Marathon, and explore how the tactics and personalities of each sex’s race contributed to the outcome that brought Meb Keflezighi to the finish as the first American male champion in 31 years, even as Rita Jeptoo of Kenya zoomed home with the first sub-2:20 women’s performance in Boston history — Buzu Deba joined her with a 2:19:59 in second place. Continue reading