Alex Mills raises some good questions.
Amidst the brilliant action at this weekend’s Prefontaine classic I was suddenly struck with a question. One I am still struggling to find answer to now.
Is it better for track and field to have events full of depth or epic rivalries?
It seems almost fitting that this puzzling question should fall to me while I was in Eugene, not only because of the amount of tantalising finishes and top performances yesterday, but also since this is the place where the US champs will go down in three weeks time.
An event that will surely illustrate both aspects in abundance.
So which would you prefer to have as an athlete, fan or journalist?
Right now in America, the competition is sharper than ever. Be it the distance races, hurdles or even the sprints, everywhere you look there seems to be ten or more world class athletes in each event.
If you want to make the national team you are going to have to race your absolute butt off and hope that you do enough on the day of the trials. Otherwise there’s a good chance that even if your superb performances would qualify you for any other international squad, you are not going to get that place at the world championships. Or the credit you deserve.
From that sense, the athletes must surely wish that the competition was a little more shallow? Yet then again, it is the presence of these other runners, jumpers and throwers which continuously pushes them on.
Take the beautiful example of teenager Alexa Efraimson, who magnificently broke the American junior record yesterday by running 4:03.39 in the 1500m. It was an incredible performance that ranks her as the current world number 12, but still she is only the US number four. Anywhere else and she’d be assured of being in the national top three. Yet it’s unlikely she would have been able to race as fast she did had she not had the domestic rivals she does, and the opportunity to compete in such a top class meet.
Although I did not speak to Efraimson in the mix zone, the winner of her race Jenny Simpson offered some perspective, not only on that performance, but on the competitiveness of US women’s middle distances: “4:03 didn’t happen for hardly anyone several years ago, I remember coming into the American champs and nobody would have the A standard.” she said. “There are going to be American women that do great things that are not showcased the way they should be and maybe that 4:03 could potentially be that way.
“I hope for every competitor that those things aren’t overshadowed because things are really competitive right now.”
As for what the depth provides her, Simpson added: “The women that are racing now make me better and so they push me, just like Sally did when I was in college. So anytime there are people around you and pushing you that brings out the best out of me for sure.”
Even so, while we the track fanatics and athletes know how impressive and important having this depth is, for the average sports fan, it can come across when seeing so many people
running a 4:03 1500m or a 2 minute 800m, that this is nothing special. As the BBC’s athletics correspondent Ed Harry explains: “If you have a lot of depth and somebody beats somebody one week and somebody else wins the next, a bit like say in the sprint hurdles, the problem is for people who aren’t fans of the sport they just think that everybody’s the same. They start to believe everybody’s kind of mediocre and much of a muchness, they don’t see five great people. They think well it’s easy if everybody’s doing it.”
“I feel sorry for the hurdlers because they’re doing great things but there’s almost too many of them that are too good at it and I think people need rivalries to really latch onto.”
Luckily for Simpson she is also involved in one of the biggest personal battles at the very top of the game, at least according to the media. In the days leading up to her win, the 1500m star was forced to deal with a barrage of questions all about her battle with compatriot Shannon Rowbury, as the organisers used the ‘contest’ to raise excitement. While she did her best to dismiss the rivalry, she at least admitted that it was good for the sport. With Leo Manzano taking a similar stance after the men’s mile when asked about his own rivalry with Matt Centrowitz.
“I think it’s good for the sport, I don’t think necessarily it’s a rivalry though, we both have our own talents, and we’ve both performed to certain abilities.” Manzano said
“Nevertheless when it comes down to it, you look at it and it’s really good for the sport, it builds the sport. As the sport grows you have more and more people in the stands, and hopefully what happens is you get more ticket sales and then more interest with the sponsors. Then hopefully that also means in turn better deals for athletes.”
Sadly even with Simpson’s, Harry’s and Manzano’s points added to the previous sentiments, I still have no definitive answer. Especially in the case of the athletes. So if anyone competing at the elite level want to weigh in on the argument then please feel free!