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.
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.
There are three things you can be assured you won’t see at any pro track meet the way the sport is currently staged. First, no event will be tied to any other event in the meet.
“Next up on the track is the women’s 400 meters. Now forget about that, because here is the men’s pole vault. Now put that aside because here is another event that has absolutely no connection to any other event. And finally, here’s the Dream Mile where we know exactly what’s going to happen (unless the pacers blow their job) until the last 400 meters.”
Second, no athlete will be connected to any other athlete in the meet, as every runner, jumper and thrower is presented as an independent contractor representing only him/herself and a shoe company. And third, no event will be staged for what the public perceives as stakes of any kind, much less high stakes. How often has a first-time track watcher asked, “but what are they running for?” In the end every event is a presented as a one-off competition, with each event simply sharing the particular venue. Nobody actually wins the track meet.
This would be like staging this weekend’s U.S. Open golf tournament whereby every hole would be independent of every other hole, and no accumulated score was ever contemplated. Or, think of staging this week’s NBA Finals in basketball where every trip up the court would be independent of every other trip up the court, in which none of the players would be affiliated with one another, and no score was added up. Instead it would be an endless repetition of the slam dunk, three-point shooting, and passing/dribbling skills challenges we see during All-Star weekend. Nobody, in fact, would win the game, because there wasn’t actually a game being played, but a series of unattached skill presentations up and down the court.
“Something I’m really going to miss is the team aspect of the sport,” Canadian high jump record holder Derek Drouin told the IAAF webzine Spikes this past week. “In the NCAA’s I loved that and I really thrived off it. I always enjoyed that team element. It was something that helped drive me (Drouin won five NCAA titles while at Indiana). I felt it was my duty to score points for the team and that is another reason why I love doing so many different events [Drouin trains as a multi-eventer and also competes as a sprint hurdler], because it gave me the chance to help the team out so much. My favourite part was watching the distance runners, who would double and triple in events and run so many miles just for the purpose of helping the team.”
High school state championships have recently been contested throughout the USA, and now the NCAAs are about to begin. Thus, for the first eight years of a young athlete’s life they are linked, sheltered, and presented within a team structure. Then,after they graduate, they are sent forth into the cold, cold world of pro track where no such shelter exists.
For the track insiders this every-event-unto-itself format is more than enough to compel our attention. But for the casual fan it falls short. No matter how great the individual performance, think Kawhi Leonard last night for the San Antonio Spurs in their game three win over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, that performance needs to be placed in a larger context for public consumption. What’s a good pork steak without a good ear of corn beside it?