I spent three days this week at the Mt. SAC Relays, watching high school, college and pro races, field events, and just generally enjoying a gorgeous venue and world-class competition. (I mean – look at the photo to the left. That’s the entrance. Look at the character in that sign!) While I enjoyed seeing world-leading times, jumps, and vaults, I was really saddened at the crowds. I wound up spending a lot of my time thinking about the sad state of modern American track and field.

Look at the stands in the photo to the right. This is WP_000560during prime-time at a nationally renowned track meet with world-class athletes. The angle is taken across the field towards the finish line; the most packed part of the stadium. How can this be? Imagine the Bears playing the Vikings, but only 8,000 showed up to Soldier Field. In other sports, when you fail to draw crowds to this degree, you fold or move. This is why the Sonics left Seattle, and the Kings are leaving Sacramento. (btw, compare that crowd to the photo below, from the Pre Classic in 2008. This is before Pre became a Diamond League meet and moved into the stratosphere of world-class meets…Eugene does it right. More on that in a later post.) (I should add, I don’t mean to suggest Mt. SAC put on a bad meet – it was great, packed with strong fields, big performances, and very well run. There’s a community aspect that has to be overcome)

Pre08 149

Why is this happening? It’s been like this for decades now, and despite some improvement in the situation, American interest in the sport is virtually nil. There are a few exceptions – nearly any meet in Eugene, Drake Relays, Adidas Grand Prix in New York, etc., but for the most part, our athletes perform in front of teammates and family members from junior high on into the pros…unless they go abroad.

There are many reasons for this – the perception of drug use in the sport, two decades of subpar American performances outside the sprints…the list goes on. I think you can add to the list, underpromotion of the sport (or really bad promotion), and an inability to adapt to a changing environment for the consumer.

But here’s a strange one that I noticed this week, and it suddenly set off alarm bells and light bulbs for me. At least some of this can be laid at the feet of parents and coaches at the youth level. What do Little League or PeeWee Football parents and coaches do to instill a love of the sport and inspire their kids to do better? They take them to games. They watch games together on TV. They show them a player who plays their position and makes connections between the kid and the athletes. In track, there is some of this, but at nowhere near the level of other sports.

I remember being at the Pre Classic last year – they had high school races the night before, so there were kids, parents and coaches from all over the country. I was truly shocked at the number of people who were completely unaware of where they were – the history of Hayward Field. Including some coaches, who were treating it as just another meet! Now, I can see not wanting to stress the kids out with too much pressure, but you still want them to understand the importance of being at that meet, in that place.

At Mt. SAC, I was surprised to see all these high school teams doing, in essence, nothing to instill a love of the sport in their kids or use the opportunity to better their understanding. So many coaches talked about leaving as soon as a race was over, meaning kids would run a race, then be out of the stadium before the elites ran. How do you let kids develop heroes doing this? How do you let them improve themselves if you ignore the best?

At one point, I watched the high school girls’ 3,200 meters, next to some coaches for a school I won’t name. After the race, the girls came to chat with their coaches, as you would expect. Meanwhile, the women’s elite 1,500 meters was about to begin. The coaches turned their back on the race, talked to the girls about their race, then told them to go get their cool-down in so they could leave. Obviously, a cool-down and some instruction post-race is important. But you couldn’t spare 5 minutes to take those girls and watch the best American middle-distance runner alive run a race (which, by the way, provided several examples of tactical racing)? You didn’t think that might be an opportunity for instruction? And you specifically told the girls to go do something else so you could leave, underscoring the unimportance of the sport happening right in front of them.

How on earth are those girls supposed to gain appreciation for the sport if their coaches have so little respect for it? At state basketball tournaments and the NCAA basketball tournament, teams stay in the building after their games, or watch games before theirs. Even if they lose, they stay and watch championships. It’s expected that there will be a love of the game, and watching the game increases that love, and respect for the other athletes who play it.

There needs to be a change, starting with very young kids. The expectations of parents and coaches in our sport needs to change. We must expect them to instill the love and respect of track and field, just as basketball coaches and parents are expected to do with their athletes, from an early age. Until we do this, we will continue to see our athletes perform in fewer and fewer meets in front of tiny crowds, then taking their best performances overseas, where they will be appreciated for what they do.