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?
5 thoughts on “PORK STEAKS AND PRO MEETS”
Toni, I agree with you. Watching the NCAA championships this weekend is much more entertaining than the “pro” track meets…the same way March Madness bests the NBA and the College World Series games have been much more interesting than the majority of MLB games. The NCAA does an amazing job with these championships.
Was at the Pre, it was a fantastic, compelling day of track and field. Funny, when I watched the SEC championships which I had dvr’d I appreciated the efforts of the individuals and the overall team competition but it certainly didn’t compare to what I experienced seeing two American records, Reese Hoffa throwing 21.64 (over 70ft) defeating upstart Joe Kovacs,two very exciting mile races (I’m sorry Toni found them predictable, 3:47low to me with both S Kiplagat and Kiprop not winning in one race and Manzano winning the other in 3:52 were not what I expected at all), Merritt vs James in another great 400m dual, and on and on at the Pre. If I try I can remember how nearly every race went and the finishes. I don’t even remember who won the SEC team titles. And I didn’t expect nor require any “team” element from the Pre. I guess I just found the Pre to be Filet Mignon, while the SEC was a Porterhouse. Oh, and there are plenty of sides to choose from: Rudisha’s and Amos’ return in the 800, perhaps seeing the last or one of the last times Lagat runs at Hayward, another high school runner’s attempt to break 4 in the mile (this time without success), etc.
If we are looking to increase the causal fan’s interest I’m not sure that a comparison to basketball is the most apt. I think it’s more nascar in that it’s based on individual competitors, promoting superstars, with big sponsors promoting big events. Don’t see the team angle on the pro level being much of a hook to the person who doesn’t follow the sport much in the first place. Unless as newtonmarunner alluded to, that some rich folks create a pro league based on teams and creates hometown loyalties in track crazy towns…no wait that requires solid fan bases to begin with.
Thanks for the studied reply. I, too, was caught up in the individual efforts at Pre, but then, we are both track fans. One key element in your analysis is the difference in how you took in the two meets, Pre vs. SECs. You were “at the Pre”, while “I watched the SEC champs on dvr”. Not that it totally alters your assessments, but there is a big difference between being at the meet and watching it on tV. Hockey has always been considered a much more exciting game to attend than to watch on TV. So while I agree there is no track atmosphere in the USA to compare with Hayward Field, unless you are already a track fan the lack of a narrative arc to a pro track meet’s presentation is, IMHO, a limiting factor in attracting new fans. Three things tend to attract interest, 1) a personal attachment, 2) high stakes, 3) recognizable personalities. So when T&F presents relatively unknown athletes wearing identical uniforms competing for no stakes in controlled racing formats while attempting to break records, it can be problematic. So the question becomes, how, then, to best address that situation and need? Or is it currently the best it will ever be, and any attempted change is quixotic? TR
I have tremendous respect for Toni’s work, but I do fundamentally disagree with his idea of linking track & field events — and road racing events, for that matter — together on philosophical grounds. In particular, the golf analogy falls apart because while the same golfer is expected to do all 18 holes, no one track & field participant is expected to do the 400m, the 10,000m, the triple jump, the pole vault, and everything else. The team sport analogy — in Toni’s example, basketball — falls apart because team sports test chemistry as a team while track & field events — other than relays — do not: The accuracy of Dwayne Wade’s no-look pass to LeBron James affects directly affects the star forward’s ability to do his 360 reverse dunk in a way that Galen Rupp’s sub-27:00 10,000m victory doesn’t directly affect Brad Walker’s 18’5” pole vault victory. I think swimming & diving, where again, every event is its own independent universe is a more appropriate analogy to track & field: how a diver performs doesn’t directly affect how a swimmer performs, and each individual event victory ought to be rewarded for its display of athletic excellence.
Oh, and I’d love to see the first person to step up to buying a team comprising of a pole vaulter, triple jumper, 100m runner; 1500m runner; 10,000m runner; etc., and paying those player’s salaries the way owners of other sports do. Maybe Toni is now rich enough to buy his latest toy — the Nike Oregon Track Club where he can pay for the contracts of Shalane Flanagan, Chris Solinsky, Rupp, etc. …
All that said, I continue to love reading Toni’s work. He reminds me everyday how running is not a bucket list activity but a sport, and that sports are meant to inspire us all to do better, and elite athletes have the power to inspire us to do better.
Newtonmarunner, As always, a formidable reply which is much appreciated. Maybe, like you suggest, golf and basketball aren’t the best models for T&F to adopt, but I guess my #1 argument for team-based competition at the pro level is that team-based (as well as individually-based) competition is how the sport is introduced at the high school and collegiate levels. Therefore to move away from that model at the pro level is to miss out on that already established synergy. And while one event in itself doesn’t affect another, the pressure to score points certainly would add to the moment. Also, though you said it a bit mockingly, I do believe that one of the things the sport does need is involvement from an owner class, general managers, coaches, agents, etc. Look how Alberto Salazar has become a lightning rod as a coach. And we see quite a few other such personalities. But we don’t have an owner class or GMs making trades, and so everything is left to the athletes, most of whom are so busy training and resting, that there is little time or energy left to promote. If our athletes are ill-suited for that important task, then where do we find their replacements within a comprehensible format? In any case, thanks for reading and continuing to explore the sport we both love and respect. TR