While each collegiate program must be evaluated on its own merits, and budget shortfalls caused by the Coronavirus pandemic are listed as the primary cause, the recent spate of collegiate track and field program eliminations can be tied, at least in part, to the trickle-down effect caused by the loss of prestige and reliability exhibited by athletics at the highest international level over the last two decades. 

From rampant performance-enhancing drug (PED) abuse charges – and missed drug testing appointments – to institutional corruption at the highest level of the sport, the state of athletics has fallen into such ignominy at the international level that it has made it eminently easier for collegiate athletic directors to take a pass on extending track and field as a sport worthy of their financial support, even if those international factors aren’t listed as reasons per se.

Athletics used to be the centerpiece of the Olympic Games, and it still remains an important component. But it doesn’t drive viewership like gymnastics and swimming do anymore, at least not in the USA where the preponderance of Olympic television rights money is generated.

In the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Mindshare found that 75 percent of the 1,034 adults it polled planned to watch the Rio Games. That’s not quite Super Bowl-level viewership, but “it ranks higher than the Oscars and the Emmys,” said Mindshare’s head of insights, Mark Potts. “It is a unifying event. It appeals to almost everybody.”

Mindshare exclusively provided a portion of its survey to Adweek Magazine, the part about which sports people are most likely to watch.

88 percent will watch gymnastics

87 percent will watch swimming

81 percent will watch other water sports (diving, rowing, etc.)

81 percent will watch track and field (declining to 75 percent for women and rising to 85 percent for men)

73 percent will watch volleyball (79 percent of men)

72 percent will watch basketball (80 percent of men)

69 percent for soccer (77 percent of men)

67 percent for tennis (72 percent of men)

Four years earlier, among the Olympic live streams offered by NBC from London 2012, four of the top 10 most-watched events were swimming races. But none of those swimming competitions beat out the number of live streams generated by Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash. His gold medal win brought in 1.3 million live streams, in addition to the 10.5 million viewers who tuned in to NBC the night it aired.  But with Bolt now long retired, and the current fastest-human on earth, America’s reigning world 100-meter champion Christian Coleman set to miss the Tokyo Olympics after being banned for two years by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) for a third “whereabouts failure”, attention on athletics in Tokyo 2021, while robust, will likely not rival previous viewership from London 2012 or Rio 2016.

Now pile on World Athletics seeing its former president, Lamine Diack (1999-2015), sentenced to two years in prison in September 2020 on corruption charges stemming from the Russian doping scandal, while his son, Papa Massata Diack, remains self-exiled in his home country of Senegal under similar charges; with one drug positive test after another stripping past champions of their accomplishments, even as new records continue to fall due to shoe technology rather than through uplifting human exploits; where, exactly, is the positive reinforcement for the sport to reach young fans, add approving sponsors, and back college programs coming under financial pressure due to Coronavirus?

The Paris Criminal Court that tried Diack acknowledged “this damage has impacted World Athletics’ finances and had a negative impact on World Athletics’ image and reputation in a deep and lasting way.”

That colleges and universities like Clemson, Minnesota, and William & Mary (and many more) have eliminated or are considering eliminating their track programs comes, then, as no surprise. The upper echelon of the sport has abrogated its responsibility to its past, besmirched its present while helping burn down its future. The Coronavirus pandemic is only serving as an accelerant to what has been a growing funeral pyre. Let’s hope there is a fire brigade (and a vaccine) on the way to douse the growing flames before even more of the sport goes up in smoke.



  1. Great column, Toni, although I would argue that Americans watched more swimming in 2016 because of Michael Phelps and not because they love to watch swimming. USA T&F needs another American star like Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, or Marion Jones and then needs to market them until they are a household name.

    1. Greg,

      I agree that Americans watch stars more than the sports themselves. But a sport must have institutional mechanisms in place to help generate stars rather than waiting for generational names like Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, or Simone Biles to come along. Marketing matters. Thanks for responding.


    1. Brian,
      While there is no direct correlation, I do believe that the actions of every sport’s top echelon has a trickle down effect throughout its ranks. Athletics has not been uplifted by its actions in many years, to the point where we begin to see consequences way beyond the competitive arena. Hopefully, the current leadership can begin the retrenchment. But it will be a Big Dig and the federation model is rife with unregulated political machinations that do not reflect well on the sportsmen and sportswomen they are meant to oversee. But let’s keep the faith just the same. Happy Thanksgiving! TR

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