A Crowd Pleaser
The leaders of American track and field spend lots of time wringing their hands over how to reestablish their sport in the public consciousness—and well they should. Craig Masback, USA Track & Field's CEO, was stunned to find during visits to potential sponsors that track has drifted so far off the radar screen that some corporations view the sport as a "new" opportunity, like snowboarding. One group of suits gave Masback a questionnaire that asked, "How long has your sport been in the Olympic Games?" Numb, Masback wrote, "Since 776 B.C."
In his 10 months on the job, Masback has drawn up a marketing plan for track and field that emphasizes its already high level of youth participation as well as the sport's rich heritage. The plan also calls for streamlining competitions and building a domestic meet circuit that brings the best athletes together.
For a model, how about Sunday's Prefontaine Classic, an international Grand Prix meet contested before a thundering crowd at Oregon's Hayward Field? The Pre jammed a terrific meet into less than 2� hours of nonstop action that included five 1998 world bests and showcased some of the top performers on the planet.
At 1:50 (PDT) on Sunday afternoon, world champion Maurice Greene ran a wind-aided 9.79 seconds to beat training partner Ato Boldon in the 100 meters. Even after all the statistical voodoo, that time stands as one of the fastest 100s ever. ( Carl Lewis once ran a 9.79, but the wind was blowing nearly twice as hard; the record is Donovan Bailey's 9.84 from '96.) Less than three minutes later, Marion Jones won the long jump with a 23'11�" leap, 7� inches off the world record in only her sixth major long jump competition. Forty minutes after that, Greene roasted Michael Johnson in the 200, after which Boldon woofed, "I knew Michael was in deep trouble here." Daniel Komen of Kenya closed the meet with a 3:50.95 mile; he was one of 11 men under four minutes. It was a great show by any standard.
Such a production requires cooperation and creativity. Meet director Tom Jordan offered a $70,000 bonus for a world record in the 100 (which he insured with a $10,000 premium) to induce Boldon to participate. ( Greene's Nike contract provided his incentive.) Kim McDonald, agent for many of the Kenyans, didn't balk when Burundi's Venuste Niyongabo was added to the mile, creating competition for Komen.
More could be done to promote the sport's revival. Field athletes must help shorten their events by taking fewer throws, jumps and vaults. TV must be smart in its coverage. (On Sunday CBS offered an "inside" nugget on a marathon mark set in April, which is insulting.) "Track fans are generally patient and intelligent," says Lance Deal, the top American in the hammer. "I'm not sure our sport will ever appeal to the mainstream, hardcore sports fan. But I'm willing to compromise to try."
American distance running is an easy target for jokes, like the President's sex life or Dennis Rodman's wardrobe. Just pick a setup—aside from the stray marathon, no U.S. Olympic medals at distances above 800 meters since 1964, Africans smashing world records while Yanks fall further behind—and deliver the punch line. Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune proposed this spring that to inspire interest in track and field in the U.S., support be cut back for races beyond 400 meters. Among U.S. distance runners of the post-Alberto Salazar era, only Bob Kennedy has stayed remotely competitive, and his U.S. 5,000-meter mark of 12:58.21 (set in 1996) is nearly 20 seconds off Komen's world record.
Kennedy has long maintained that the Kenyans and Ethiopians go fast because they train hard, not because they grew up running 12 miles to school, and that Americans hoping to compete must do the same. There are signs that two Stanford freshmen, Gabe Jennings and Jonathon Riley, are among a generation (which includes Adam Goucher of Colorado and Seneca Lassiter of Arkansas) prepared to do just that, as well as anything else necessary to succeed