Here we are once again, in Olympic withdrawal, basking in the afterglow of the Tokyo Games. And despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the lack of fans, the athletes of the 2021 Tokyo Games delivered a full dose of competitive serum into our hungry veins over the last 2 1/2 weeks.
The performances in Tokyo (and Sapporo) both lifted our spirits and broke our hearts. Mental health issues were spotlighted like never before and there were performances for the ages in athletics, many gilded by the super bouncy Mondo track and slew of energy-returning track spikes. But that’s what they call progress and there’s no stopping it. So let’s adjust for modernity and move on, knowing these record times will give way to even more technological advances sooner than later.
Talk now turns to how America needs to build on Tokyo and capitalize on next summer’s 2022 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, seen as a vital opportunity to increase the stature of the sport in America where we still can’t seem to build an audience beyond the base of hard-core fans despite winning more Olympic medals than any other nation.
But with climaxing golds in both the women’s and men’s 4 x 400 meters, elevating Allyson Felix into a singular strata of excellence over her remarkable career, and anointing Sydney McLaugjlin as America’s next track superstar, there is every hope that Athletics may yet extend its audience in sports crazed America in Eugene 2022.
Yet that same hope existed following the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games in the Los Angeles and Atlanta, you might remember. In both cases, that new day for Athletics never dawned. And that was when the Olympic sporting landscape remained essentially what it had been for decades, with Athletics as the highest peak along the range of Olympic sports.
Today, there are any number of new sports rising up, many joining the Olympic program, to challenge the old guard and steal away interest and sponsors and future participants.
Before the men’s Olympic Marathon got underway on Saturday, I went over to a local park and adjacent college campus for my daily walk. As I ambled through the vacant Mesa College campus, I heard PA announcements drifting over from the San Diego BMX Park across a ravine. Thinking I might learn something, I strolled over for a look see.
Entering the grounds, I passed through a parking lot filled with hundreds of cars, and even some campers with out-of-state plates. And everywhere I looked kids galore charged around on knobby tired bikes, dressed in logo-splashed Formula1 racing suits topped by colorful Darth Vader-like crash helmets.
I thought to myself, does Athletics have anything that can appeal to the 6 to 14 year-old set like this? The gear, the speed, the fans, the energy, it all spoke to the next generation.
And it isn’t just the sport of track and field that is being challenged. Los Angelino Luis Para brought his three boys, ages 6, 8, and 14 down from LA to compete. All three of the Para boys used to play football. But they changed over to BMX because mom and dad thought it seemed like a safer sport, though there were still thrills and spills.
In fact, the Para boys’ hero, American BMX Olympian Connor Fields, was badly injured in a pre-Olympic competition in Japan in July. But he appeals to kids in a way no track star can or does.
Competition from new, more fun-and-games oriented sports has only added to the age-old problem confronting Athletics in trying to engage the land of the free and home of the brave, the perception of professional opportunity.
Though track remains among the most participated in sports in high school and develops top performers through a robust NCAA system, American sport is still built on Benjamins, you know, bones, bucks, cabbage: the almighty dollar. And no number of shiny gold, silver, or bronze medals can equate to $200 million contract extensions that we hear about every morning on sport chat shows during the NBA, NFL, MLB seasons, and even off-seasons. Nor will they offset the seven-figure first-place checks handed out at major golf and tennis championships.
NBA players, along with pro golfers and tennis players go to the Olympics for the fun of representing their countries. But it’s not where go to make money. To them, it’s more a throwback to the old amateur Games. And for them, that’s fine.
But for athletics, an Olympic medal is the best lever athletes have to pry open shoe contracts, the athletes’ primary source of income. As has been widely reported, 50% of track athletes ranked in the top 10 in the nation make less than $15,000 per year. Another 20% ranked in the top 10 earn $50,000 per year. The average earnings for a BMX professional in the United States is $65,000 per annum.
So the hope for Eugene 2022 to make some significant difference in the fortunes of the sport in America is likely chasing fool’s gold, a chimera. So let’s love Athletics for what it is, a sporting distillation of life’s uplifting glory and crushing disappointment. But let’s not burden it with expectations that can’t be met.
When America watches athletics it isn’t watching a professional sport that kids aspire to in the same way that playing BMX does, or watching the NBA, NFL, and MLB do.
And no number of Olympic medals or a Games’ afterglow, no matter how warm, will be enough to light that fire anew once the Olympic cauldron has gone dark.