I love track and field. From the time I first raced my childhood buddy Chris Rote to a distant telephone pole or was welcomed to coverage of the Penn Relays by Jim McKay on Wide World of Sports, I was hooked on a sport that traces its history to ancient times and declares its winners and losers on purely objective criteria.
My first exposure to track was during its golden era, the late 1950s and early '60s. That was an age of innocence in sports, before free agency and before drug taking and drug testing. Track had an exciting two-month indoor season. Dual outdoor meets with the Soviet Union drew more than 60,000 fans. Stars like decathlete Rafer Johnson and miler Jim Beatty were household names. Track and field athletes competed for the love of their sport. Their passion became my passion.
The sport's status in the U.S. went into decline in the mid-1970s. Squabbles about amateurism, disappointing Olympic showings and revelations of drug use compounded the fact that track and field did nothing to promote itself and its stars. If squandering assets were a crime, the sport would have been in jail long ago. Even with two Olympics on U.S. soil, in 1984 and '96, and such transcendent athletes as Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Michael Johnson leading the way, track and field lost its place in the American consciousness. That meant smaller crowds, fewer meets, less coverage by the media.
All of this may lead you to question my sanity in accepting the post of USA Track & Field's CEO last week. But like a doctor who finds vital signs when others are in despair, I am optmistic about the sport and its potential.
A plan to take track and field to a new golden era is emerging. First, we need to marshal our assets, which are substantial. The federal law requiring that USA Track & Field serve the needs of every runner, race walker, and track and field athlete in America isn't a burden, it's an opportunity. The numbers of participants are impressive, representing an important social movement, a solid base of potential fans and a marketer's dream—30 million self-described runners, 70 million recreational walkers, 7.8 million people who ran road races last year, and more than a million high school students participating in track and field and cross-country.
Second, we need to present ourselves better. Thanks mostly to the NBA, fans expect to be entertained when they attend sports events. Many track meets are boring. We must cut the interminable delays between races and take meets to smaller, more intimate arenas to help spectators get a better sense of the athletes' power and grace. We must develop interest in track outside of the Olympics by staging head-to-head matchups and meets in which the U.S. team takes on other leading track powers. Like it or not, the Michael Johnson-Donovan Bailey match race captured the public's attention and suggests the need to take risks to broaden our audience.
Third, we need to reeducate the public and media about the sport. By creating defined seasons, track can have a more coherent presence on the sports scene. Of course, TV exposure is key. There are plans to follow an expanded winter indoor season with a 10-week spring series featuring college teams. The summer outdoor season will include invitational and championship events in the U.S. followed by big European meets featuring American athletes. But mere exposure isn't enough. Track and field needs to tell positive stories about its athletes, who want to be—and should be—role models. I'm going to tackle the drug issue head on, continuing the comprehensive testing program while reviewing it top to bottom and ensuring that all alleged positive tests are adjudicated quickly and fairly.
Finally, our greatest resource is our elite athletes. They won 13 golds in Atlanta, 10 more than any other country, and have challenged USA Track & Field to be as successful as they are. The good news is that they are willing to speak with their feet and free time. Sprinters Michael Johnson and Dennis Mitchell, among others, have expressed a desire to be part of presentations to TV networks and potential corporate sponsors. Middle distance runners Steve Holman and Bob Kennedy have ideas for getting executives and political leaders who are runners involved in our renaissance. A partnership between USA Track & Field and top athletes is the best antidote for the negativism that has held back the sport in the past. The return to the golden era may be more of a marathon than a sprint, but the race has begun.