Even as the World Athletics Championships are being staged for the first time on American soil in Eugene, Oregon, there is a move afoot by USA Track & Field, supported by World Athletics, to build track and field into one of the top five sports in America by the time of the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. In a 2019 Nielson survey commissioned by WA, athletics (T&F) came out as the eighth most-followed sport in America behind football, baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis, and motor sports.
One solution in what USATF is calling its six-year ”Journey To Gold” is a five-city circuit of track meets scheduled for the summer of 2023 in America that can compete with the Diamond League in Europe in terms of field quality.
WA President Sebastian Coe believes that what gives athletics a great base from which to grow the sport in the USA is the 50 million Americans who self-identify as recreational runners.
“The challenge,” says Coe, “is to form that really clear connection with what they are doing – particularly those recreational runners – and believing they are part of that track and field landscape.”
USATF Executive Director Max Siegel plans to “take pre-existing events with built-in fan bases and create a ‘festival-type atmosphere’ around them, perhaps including a road race, to tap into its largest possible audience of casual runners.”
That there are only one or two professional track venues in the country is one factor to consider, but another is the makeup of the running universe in America.
In foot racing, there are two types of contact, physical and psychological. Running with a pack defines the first, being off the pace, but thinking you can still come back onto the leaders defines the second. For over three decades now, we have seen running morph into two distinct, co-existing eco-systems that are neither physically nor psychologically in contact.
On one side are the dedicated competitors, led at the very top by the enduring excellence emanating from East Africa. Lovely people, great runners, but not bonded to the average runners behind them as were the original, homegrown heroes that inspired the growth of the sport many years ago, many of whom were out in Eugene to take in the world championships.
Just below them are the always competitive, but rarely winning, top Americans. We saw a perfect example of that at the World Championships Women’s Marathon in Eugene, where America’s Sara Hall, Emma Bates, and Keira D’Amato formed the best scoring team, but finished fifth, seventh, and eighth, respectively.
Below them are the everyday runners who train hard every week to get the most out of themselves, people from their 20s up to their 70s. In San Diego, former Villanova All-American and Athletics West pro, Kevin McCarey, has mentored one such dedicated group for thirty years.
Each Saturday morning, Kevin puts anywhere from ten to thirty runners through their paces doing hard interval and fartlek sessions, either on the grass at Ski Beach or the eucalyptus trails at UCSD in La Jolla for cross-country season.
Finally, there are the vast majority of runners who may belong to local track club or join a training group who might yearn for a Boston Marathon qualifier or to get a PR in the marathon. But after that, the hard stuff is over. Once the bucket-list goal has been accomplished, it’s back to running as a purely social enterprise.
Performance is not why they run, it’s not what they want out of it. They aren’t fans of the sport. They don’t know or follow the top runners. It’s more about how nice is the medal? What’s the swag? And where are we going for brunch afterwards? They even talk on the phone during their marathons and half-marathons about where they’re going afterwards. There is no interest in a competitive environment unless you’re talking about which restaurant.
Not that USATF shouldn’t make every attempt to make the connection, and no-guts, no-glory, but the likelihood that the average American runner will sit around in their running clothes and go to a track meet and watch a bunch of people they don’t know or connect with race around a high school track seems quixotic. (Well, maybe if you served brunch.)
These runners don’t even know there’s a World Athletics Championships going on in Eugene right now! But that’s no different from me just finding out that Comic-Con is happening at San Diego’s Convention Center this weekend. It’s the biggest thing of the year in town, but unless you’re into Comic-Con, you’re oblivious to it.
The late, great Harvard evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, referred to the distinction between religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria”. Such is the distinction between competitive and recreational running.
Don’t get me wrong, there used to be a middle class of runners. But we’ve lost them and now find ourselves, like the rest of America, polarized, with nothing in the middle to hold us together..
While the goal to link average runners to the best runners has merit, its duality of purpose is like WA trying to increase international participation in the sport by allowing unqualified athletes to run at the World Championships. Developing a sport and showcasing it are two distinct agendas, each requiring specific attention. Every successful sport has separated those duties into amateur and professional wings.
Day 7 at the World Championships in Eugene ended with two scintillating 200m dash finals. In the first, Sharika Jackson of Jamaica ran the second fastest 200m for women in history, 21.45. While in the second, Noah Lyles led an American sweep with the third fastest time in men’s history, 19.31.
24 hours earlier, Day 6 began with the opening round of the men’s 800m. And out in lane eight was a runner from East Timor with a PB of 1:58. What’s a 1:58 guy doing at the World Championships, I mean, down on the track? This is not an All-Comers meet, right? Isn’t this where we find out who’s best in the world? I mean, there’s a time and a place.
Why do you think there were far fewer people in the stands at Hayward Field on Wednesday and Thursday nights compared to the relatively full house on Tuesday on Day 5? Maybe because people had to prioritize their travel and expenses, and saw ten days as too burdensome?
“I planned my entire trip around the (Day 5) Men’s 400m hurdles and 1500m final,” said San Diego City College and SDTC coach Paul Greer, who just returned home Wednesday night.
Think he was alone in that travel schedule?
“The stadium was never sold out in any of the first five days,” Paul reported, “and I attended every session. And I didn’t sit in the seat I bought once. I sat in the same section, but never in the right seat. That’s because there were open seats in every section of the stadium. The night of the 100m men’s final it was 85-90% full, but that was the closest it came to being sold out.
“People who bought $60 seats were moving to $120 seats. And there were no ushers or anyone checking tickets. We were calling people over from the bleachers to come sit with us during the Men’s high jump because we were right in front of it at the south end of the stadium.”
Build it and they will come? And this is in Tracktown USA, the epicenter of track and field in the United States.
Perhaps if they scheduled the World Championships in its entirety over five days rather than ten, WA might be able to hold the entire audience for the entire time. What’s the old business adage: mass your assets, then focus people’s attention? But if WA did that, you wouldn’t have the 1:58 guy from East Timor out in lane eight in the preliminary round of the 800m.
When the mission is so broad as to encompass all things for all people, you inevitably come into conflict with yourself. And that has always been a stumbling block for the Federation-based model of athletics, which regulates, develops, and showcases all events for all ages, amateur and professional.
While there may be 50 million self-identified runners in America, there are only 130,000 members in USATF in 57 regional associations. When major marathons in Boston, New York City, and Columbus, Ohio, removed USATF membership as a requirement for race entry in 2000, adult membership in the organization shrank dramatically. Today, in many of the 57 local associations, the youth component far out numbers the adults. So you have constituencies of elite athletes and youth as major components of the organization. One wonders whether baseball would have Little League and the Major League under the same umbrella?
The vaunted 50 million runners, the Silent Majority, you might say, don’t watch track on TV. They don’t read Track & Field News or Letsrun.com.
Running is a healthy lifestyle they share with like-minded people in a social setting that just happens to be a competitive race for others up the road. Just like the fans who traveled to Eugene for the World Championships came out of a competitive background and went to Worlds to rub shoulders with their like-minded people.
But they’re different types of people. One isn’t better, or worst, just a different tribe. And until the sport finds a way to co-opt the best runners and make them our own – like the NBA, MLB, and the NBA do via team-based play – then pay them a professional wage as they compete in professional venues (and maybe offer brunch), trying to conflate the two will only confound and frustrate you. But that’s just my cynical POV.