Track and field's problems (cont.)
First, in the post-Ben Johnson era, the roster of athletes busted for doping violations was a who's who of A-listers: Dain Chambers, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin, Alvin and Calvin Harrison, Dennis Mitchell, Christie Gaines and there are more. I once called USATF for a drug-related comment and was berated for "writing about the sport every single time there was a drug problem." If everything you want to believe in at the sport's elite levels, rightly or wrongly, has trouble passing the smell test because we've been duped before, then try fixing the message instead of shooting the messenger.
Next, rivalries are the lifeblood of any sport. The Yankees are more loved and hated because of the Red Sox; Ali was greater still because Frazier was so good, too; and the Lakers need the Celtics the way the Packers need the Bears. But check out track meets and see how the best athletes duck and dodge one another until they absolutely have to toe the lines at the Olympics or world championships. Some invitational meets have separate sprint heats (or even a 1,500-meter run and a separate mile run) without finals so two runners won't have to face each other and risk harming their reputations (i.e. future appearance fees) because of a loss to a rival.
I remember talking to Renaldo Nehemiah a few years ago about this. Nehemiah held the world record in the 110 hurdles for many years before joining the 49ers and then later becoming an agent. He waxed poetic about his great rivalry with Greg Foster and always knew the exact number of head-to-head meetings as they extended by the dozens and fans everywhere got to see how exciting the hurdles could be by watching the best drive the best to be better. He also talked about the rivalry between Gatlin, then his client, and Jamaica's Asafa Powell, the top gun before the emergence of Usain Bolt. When were they actually going to race?
That was the million-dollar question, Nehemiah told me, noting that a promoter with deep pockets would have to pay handsome appearance fees to get them to put their reputations on the line at the same time. "There are many people who are trying to benefit at the expense of Justin and Asafa. It's not a question of whether both men want to race; it's about managements making sure that they are not taken advantage of."
I heard the same arguments when people wanted to see a 200 race between Maurice Greene, the world's best 100 runner, and Michael Johnson, the world's best 400 runner. This was the race the track public wanted, so both management teams set absurdly high prices and watched the months tick away until the two finally had to go head-to-head at the 2000 Olympic trials. Inexplicably, both men pulled up lame and failed to finish the race. Then they never faced each other again. The greatest rivalry in a generation of a sport and it never even had a conclusion.
But even before Greene, Johnson and Gatlin, the self-interests within track were outracing the interests of track. Instead of uplifting the sport, Carl Lewis often seemed intent on lifting himself above it. His agent compared his star power and earning potential to icons of pop culture, saying that they didn't want people to think of Lewis as "just some athlete." He even said, "Carl can be as big as Michael Jackson." Lewis rarely stayed in the same hotel as other runners when he went to track meets. When I asked a meet director one day about the timing of a pre-meet press conference for several of the runners, he told me they had to wait for word from the Lewis camp as to when they wanted to hold theirs. Lewis simply didn't do joint press conferences. After he retired, the pop-icon wannabe engaged in some bad acting, some not-bad politics and one of the worst moments in the history of national anthems. Ah, but he was always a track icon. What was wrong with that?
Lewis was among those on the list for the poorly attended New York Games outdoor meet at Columbia University one summer where thousands of seats went unsold in front of Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mary Slaney and others. The problem, an official told me, was that after meeting the athletes' appearance prices, they had no money left to ask the athletes to help promote the meet. They had to ask? What happened to the age when athletes like Dwight Stones used to call up local radio stations on his own accord asking if they wanted to interview him before a big meet? This isn't to suggest that runners shouldn't make money, but if they aren't careful about the hand that's feeding them, the hand may not always be there to feed them or others who follow them.
It wasn't always that way. I think of reading about decathlon great Rafer Johnson, one of my early sporting heroes, who devoted his life to causes that were bigger than himself. At UCLA he was the first black student to become the head of a major college fraternity. He served in the Peace Corps and was a founding member and chairman of the California Special Olympics. I also recall him telling me one day that he worried some of the sport's superstars were forgetting about the platform on which they stood. If they don't look after the platform, he said, someday it could break underneath them.
Meets still generate a fair amount of buzz in Europe and at their best, track events anywhere can be thrilling, especially when two or more athletes at the top of their games uplift the sport through healthy, frequent, drug-free, ego-suspended competition. But these days there simply isn't enough substance to sustain the masquerade of entitlement. There is always talk of a new vision, a marketing strategy, a TV deal, a tour of this kind or that kind. First, there must be something more vital. Track desperately needs to get hungry for track's sake and not for the sake of those who benefit from it at the top end. More than ever, those in the sport of track and field must believe that track needs the world more than the world needs track. Because more than ever, it does.