This is an Olympic year, and in early August fans will be focused on the track-and- field segment of the quadrennial Games, its main event. People will know who won the 100-meter dash and care about who will win the metric mile when it’s run. You might be surprised to know that Americans promise to contend strongly in the latter race, for the first time in decades.
Right now, though, the thinclads (as we used to call them) toil in anonymity in this land, their usual recent status. That was brought home last weekend when the Millrose Games, which used to be the highlight of the annual indoor track season, ended a 98-year run at New York’s Madison Square Garden and moved to the Armory at 168th Street near Broadway. The reasons for the move were both economic and aesthetic: the 5,000 or so people the show was expected to draw didn’t justify midtown rent and would look better packing the Armory than rattling around in the Garden.
It’s no news that track and field is in decline in the U.S. of A., a casualty of a calendar packed with better-hyped and more telegenic attractions. The indoor season that once flourished in lots of big cities is all but gone, along with the sponsorship that supported it. Things have gotten so tight for some individual athletes that one— Adam Nelson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the shot put—felt moved to go on ebay to seek training sustenance a few years back (he got a one-month deal from a medical supply company), and others have been offering to tattoo their bodies (temporarily) with corporate logos in exchange for aid.
Squabbles over money between the International and U.S. Olympic committees hurt everyone, most especially the athletes. Did you know that the Olympics take in billions of dollars in TV revenues and sponsorship fees but offer zero prize money to medal winners, leaving that to national governing bodies? Now you do. If it weren’t for the shoe companies the sport would by necessity revert to its bad old amateur days.
By me that’s sad. While most of my sports-writing colleagues agreed with Bernie Lincicome, late of the Chicago Trib, that the only thing duller than track was field, I always enjoyed the sport and the people who engaged in it. Its events include the most-natural of athletic competitions (I have no doubt that the first humans vied to see who could run fastest from here to there, or throw a rock farthest) and, on the youth level, are the most welcoming to boys and girls of normal sizes and proportions. The cross-country teams from my local high school in Scottsdale sometimes train on the streets of my semi-rural neighborhood, and I can’t help but smile every time I see them canter by.
Partly in consequence of its low commercial profile, track and field also is our most-democratic sport. School tracks commonly are used by recreational runners when the teams aren’t using them, and runners of various ages and degrees of proficiency often share the same space. I fondly recall the late, sainted Ted Haydon, the longtime track coach at the University of Chicago, hanging around after practice to advise any kid or grownup who asked for his help, and seeing young runners change their shoes in his infield next to the likes of Rick Wolhuter, one the best American middle-distance men ever.
Indeed, without a Haydon-like volunteer effort, the Millrose Games might have had nowhere to go once their MSG run ended. The Armory exists as a track-and-field facility only because of Norbert Sanders, a New York physician who ran track in his school and college days and later went on to win the 1974 New York Marathon.
Dr. Sanders, whom I profiled in a 1999 column, had pretty much left the sport for doctoring after his marathon triumph, but was pulled back into it by the shock of the death of his high-school coach, Joe Fox. That event caused him to reexamine his life and conclude that the youthful discipline he’d gained from running had been instrumental in his later accomplishments. At the time the city of New York was pondering what to do with the Armory, and ancient but solid building that in its last incarnation had been a homeless shelter so vast (it housed 1,200) that it had become unmanageable and notorious. He founded a group that dedicated itself to returning it as the track-and-field installation for city teams that it had been 30 years before.
Dr. Sanders pestered decision-makers for years, and raised $11 million, to make his dream a reality. Once successful, he oversaw an Armory cleanup of Augean proportions and the purchase of a state-of-the-art, 200-meter rubberized running track that was one of the best anywhere. Seven days a week from mid-November to mid-March the place is so much in use by teams and elite and recreational runners that its door hinges have to be replaced frequently. It’s a civic treasure.
Thanks mostly to our large population and deep gene pool, the U.S. probably will do well in track and field at this summer’s Games in London. It always does, and makes us proud. Still, it would be nice if we could rejigger our sports priorities just a bit to help improve our standard bearers’ lots the other 99% of the time.