It’s an old question, and a frustrating one, too. But maybe a moot one, just the same: why can’t Athletics (track & field) break through into the U.S. mainstream? 

Let’s begin with just the minor stuff, like nomenclature. As you can see by the use of parentheses in the opening graph, everyone else calls the sport “athletics”. But in America, we still call it “track and field.” Everyone else uses the metric system for measurements, while we hold on to the imperial system of feet and inches. These are small but telling differences that make the sport just slightly off-kilter in the USA.

In terms of the panoply of the sport itself, forget about drugs, corruption, lack of money, too many events, and too few personalities – all valid contributing factors. To stay true to itself, athletics is always going to be a tough sale in America, in part, because the American public has learned to watch displays of fast running, high jumping, and far throwing distilled into domestic, team-based sports that lead to season-ending championships in football, basketball, and baseball. 

I have often thought the same thing about world football (soccer – here we go again with nomenclature). Imagine the team we could put together for the World Cup if the talents currently playing in the major pro sports had grown up playing soccer? Fuggedaboutit!

Athletics doesn’t lend itself to being tarted up simply to attract new fans. You can’t change it too much without losing its essential nature.

Look what just happened with the 4 X 400m Mixed Relay, Allyson Felix’s last competition on the world stage. Eugene was only the second time they staged the event at the World Championships, a real crowd-pleaser. Yet despite WA awarding gold, silver, and bronze medals to the winning teams, many people saw it as an exhibition event, because it wasn’t one of the two traditional relays. Athletics, in just that sense, is a love it or leave it sport. 

The beauty of the sport, and it’s obviously not for everyone, is its purity of purpose as defined by the Olympic motto: Citius. Altius, Fortius. Very simple, very elegant. The world’s population brought together to define the limits of the human form within the field of gravity. And except for the relays, it’s all about individual excellence and responsibility for that excellence.

That said, following the American women’s performances in the marathon on Monday – Sara Hall, 5th; Emma Bates, 7th; Keira D’Amato, 8th – there were calls once more for World Championship and Olympic Marathon team medals.

How different would it be if Sara, Emma, and Keira could be introduced at their next marathons as World Championship team gold medalists? That alone would raise the stature of the athletes, the event, and the sport itself. One wonders what the arguments against are? It might also attract more competitors to the World Champs Marathon than the 41 starters and 32 finishers they had in Eugene.

Team USA: Emma, Sara, and Keira (mybestruns.com)

And though rivalries naturally occur on the track, think Gudaf Tsegay vs Faith Kipyegon in the women’s 1500m, WA does not promote the sport like a prizefight, this athlete against that athlete. Athletics is all of us in competition to get there first or go higher or farther. It is more of a collective aspiration, the physical expression of what the human form and mind are capable of. 

Yes, Usain Bolt broke through into the mainstream. Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens broke through, and Flo Jo, too. But the sporting landscape then wasn’t nearly as crowded or dispersed as it is now. Allyson Felix is the latest break-out runner, though she rose in the public square not simply by her excellence on the track, but because of her reaction to outside forces – Nike contracts and a return to form following a difficult pregnancy.  

For many reasons, all quite admirable, officials in the sport have focused on bringing in and developing new nations rather than elevating the top ones. In fact,WA banished one of the very best, Russia, because of its serial and cynical cheating.

Developing the sport is a worthy goal – the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki 1983 featured 153 nations and 1333 athletes. Doha 2019 gathered a record 206 nations, while Eugene sports a record 1972 athletes from 192 nations. But in prioritizing development, the top-end hasn’t remained competitive enough in the sporting marketplace in America to attract fans beyond its hard-core base. That’s one reason other sports separate development from staging and marketing professional competition. It’s two different jobs.

Saw this late last night while rummaging around the internet. 

“Draconian disqualification rules and broadcast issues are hurting World Championships.”

This headline bannered an article written by Shalise Manza Young for Yahoo Sports that called out World Athletics for its false start rules that DQ’d Oregon’s Devon Allen in the 110m hurdles, and has TV distribution in the U.S. bouncing around from network, to cable, to a live-streaming service. 

Now look at the bottom of the article and read the caption below the photo.

Dallilah Muhammad? You mean the 400m hurdler?

Oh, well. Whataya gonna do? For starters, I think I’ll just keep on enjoying the great competition. Go, team!


4 thoughts on “WHY?

  1. I like the idea of team medals in the marathon. World X-C has always (in my memory) had team medals. In NCAA the NCAAs the team medal is more valued than the individual!

    1. Need to create and validate more marketable stars. Sydney McLaughlin has the chops for it. But does she have the drive for fame? Seems a reserved person. Athing Mu, think, has a very appealing quality beyond her running. But Sydney has set the bar for excellence and domination right now. She’s got the world record of these championships, and it was a good one. Let’s see what Athing goes vs. Hodgkinson (GBR, Welteji (ETH) and Goule (JAM) in the final.

  2. The media has tried in the past to focus on rivalries only to have the effort blow up in their faces. Mary Decker vs. Zola Budd in 1984 was the best (or worst) example of this. And they have also tried to focus on individuals, such as Mary Decker (again) in 1996 because they were well known, despite having no chance of medaling, or they spend too much time with one athlete, such as Carl Lewis, that they miss other great stories. The former happened again on Monday night when Cory McGee and Sinclair Johnson were leading the chase pack in the W1500m. The NBC commentator speculated that they could still have a chance for a medal when they clearly didn’t. The BBC does a far better job because they highlight each runner’s CV before the race starts so they know who the favorites are, and they also have the expertise to explain the tactics, e.g., Ingebritsen likes to stay out of trouble at the start, McSweyn likes a fast pace because he doesn’t have a kick, Kerr has a tremendous kick, etc. If I were a track novice, I think I would much prefer the BBC coverage because it is focused on the leaders, regardless of what nation they are from. Why would I care about someone I have never heard of who finished 6th and was never a factor just because they happen to be American?

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