The truth of athletics in North America

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In 1995, I went to Goteborg, Sweden for the IAAF World Outdoor Athletics Championships. It was my first time outside of the United States, and I was very excited to see a world championships! I had the pleasure of sitting next to the late Don Potts, one of the developers of the TFN Track Rankings and the writer of many of the most geeky of track books. I was in track and field nirvana.

In that meet, I saw Jonathan Edwards break the world record for the triple jump, Kim Batten and Tonja Buford Dailey break the world record for the 400 m hurdles among many days of spectacular track & field. I also had the pleasure of meeting many of the great European track writers, many of whom I had read their works for years.

Probably the most enlightening event of the entire World Championships was when, as I was grabbing some results, I overheard, in French, a conversation about the terrible state that track & field was in North America.

A few minutes later, someone in the conversation noticed that I was from the United States and began to ask me about the state of the sport in our country. I was incredulous. They had been told that most of our tracks were in disarray, that athletes were not participating in our sport and that the Federation was in ruin.

I told them that while I knew little about the Federation, that the high school and college parts of the sport were growing, that most towns and villages in the U.S. had track facilities, and that while the sport was not getting the attention of the professional sports, track & field was far from dying.

I have published track & field publications since 1989, and in that time, have seen great changes in the sport. We have had a renaissance in our prep distance running, as well as our technical events, especially the shot and pole vault. The 1.4 million boys and girls who competed in either cross country, indoor or outdoor track & field in the U.S. make up the largest high school sport in North America-athletics. Of the 22 million boys and girls in high school, 7.2 million compete in high school sports, and 1.4 million of them are in our sport, athletics.

At the junior high level, over 3 million 11-13 year olds competed in jr high cross country or track last year. The programs are varying in quality, but it is where most kids get their first glance of our sport.

Our federation, USA Track & Field, has also had a renaissance. Under the tutelage of Craig Masback, and the fiscal management of Jim Elias, the sport has come back from insolvency to a very strong budget. The challenge will always be how a board can control its executive director and vice versa. The CEO must be a good salesman, a good pr person and love the sport, without that, there can be no success. The goal of the federation is to put medals around the necks of US athletes at international competiton, yet it governs road running, race walking, masters and youth track, and cross country, and elite development.

Where are our challenges? Should the federation be managing track meets? Should the federation control the tv broadcasting in our sport? Should the federation continue, like the Yugoslavia of sports, where the entire sport is ruled by one strong group?

Our sport in North America, like our society, is quite complicated. On the positive side, if, as a parent, one wants their child to meet children of other ethnic groups, of other socio-economic groups, then track & field is that sport. Our strength is in our diversity. Our strength is in the contrarian approaches some coaches and clubs take to the sport. Our success is because local action begets national changes. Our success is because, with 300 million people, the U.S. has the next star in nearly every event in track & field-there is just one problem. What stops that great athlete, the kid who could run a 3.40 mile, or run a 9.6 for 100 meters, or throw the shot 75 feet, from coming out for track & field? How about the world of distractions in our society!

From computer games to professional sports, many of our best potential athletes never come out for our sport. For some it is the if one can not win right away, why come out? Or it is I do not want to work so hard.

Our sport takes 12-15 years for an athlete to mature. It takes many people, from coaches and trainers and parents to meet directors and officials and sponsors to make the sport grow. Luckily, we have had a renaissance in our sport in the U.S., people asking the right questions, people starting clubs, starting training centers, and giving their time, hearts and souls to support our sport of athletics.

The truth of athletics in North America is that we have great potential here, and we are making progress, however, the sport has to continue to change and fine tune in order to grow. We will explore more of the issues here in later columns.

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