Category: Track & Field



I go to the Pre Classic every year – I think I’m on my 10th (2003-now, with a couple missed). It’s a special meet for me, a special place for athletics, and a great place to kick off the bucket list road trip! See, I’ve been going to Pre Classic since before the Diamond League, but since the DL started up, I’ve seen these other amazing places and wondered what it’s like to watch a meet there. Uniquely high on the list, near Hayward Field, is Bislett Stadium in Oslo, home of the Bislett Games and the Dream Mile – Hayward has more sub-4 miles than anywhere in the world, but Bislett has seen more mile world records. I’ve dreamed of seeing a mile run in Oslo since I was 12 years old. So this year I decided..the hell with it. I’m gonna start in Eugene, go to Oslo, and just attend whatever meets come up in the middle! So as the schedule shook out, it’s Eugene, Rome, Birmingham, and Oslo – 4 meets in 4 countries in 12 days. I don’t have an audience anymore, not really, I haven’t written about track in forever (seriously! Since 2012!), and frankly I’m so busy with the day job that I can’t follow every Harry Jerome classic and Hoka One One invitational that happens, so I’m not as in the loop as the Flotrack guys or RunBlogRun, but I’ll do what I can to document what I see both on the track and as I travel. 🙂 And first up: Eu – gene!

Track's version of St. Peter's

Track’s version of St. Peter’s

I’m curious if this trip will undo my image of Hayward as the best track venue on the planet. I’m describing Hayward/Bislett to friends as St. Peter’s Basilica/St. Paul’s Cathedral – both are church, you just have to decide which one’s best. For me, until further notice, Hayward is the class of the field. Every year the quality of competition improves, the meet is annually in the top 3 competitive meets in the world (same with Zurich – next year’s bucket list?), and you can’t even quantify the quality of the crowd. So knowledgable, so passionate, so LOUD. The athletes are involved and excited to be there, and it shows. This year, with a few exceptions, met the annual standard of greatness.

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First, the competition. Seeing Justin Gatlin push his residual dope store and Ben Johnson-esque eyes to a 19.68 second 200 meters, Mutaz Essa Barshim showing an otherworldly fluid jumping style to clear 2.41 meters, Renaud Lavillenie threatening his world record in the pole vault..the list could (and does) go on. Pre also has an International Mile – basically a rung below the beasts who run the Bowerman mile – and this year they introduced an International 100m for the women. In the 100, the International race was not just on a par with the full product for quality, but for actual performance. English Gardner’s 10.84 showed she’s back from injury in the 100m, and would have placed her fourth in the DL 100…and she effectively tied with Elaine Thompson in her own race! Genzebe Dibaba ran a brilliant 5000m, running solo after around 2k and threatening her big sister’s world record, before finishing with a sublime 14:19.76. Tirunesh, prepare to be unseated…

Jenny Simpson and Sofia Hassan continued their rivalry in the 1500, running shoulder to shoulder behind Shannon Rowbury, who is trying some new things like frontrunning, before a furious and brilliant kick over the last 150m showed Jenny to be, as in 2014, the class of the field. The women’s 1500 at US Nationals is going to be RIDICULOUS – the American women are suddenly loaded in the middle distances, and I could see them threatening for more than one medal in Beijing. Mo Farah showed flashes of anger at the pacemaking on Friday night, but after finally getting them off the track and sharing work with Paul Tanui, managed to run a 26:50…and be upset that it wasn’t faster. And Kirani James absolutely blowing up the field, making 43.95 look easy. I can go on – Evan Jager is clearly ready to challenge for medals in the steeplechase, but Ezekiel Kemboi is probably untouchable right now (and is a better dancer), we could be ready for a changing of the guard in the women’s javelin…but I want to talk about some things I saw that I didn’t love.

Evan Jager making his last push on the way to 8:05

Evan Jager making his last push on the way to 8:05

First, the pacemakers in the 10,000 weren’t doing what was asked of them (as has been pointed out elsewhere, finding guys willing to sacrifice themselves to run a 13:20 5k and then a bit more just for Mo’s amusement is going to be hard in a world championship year), but with that exception (and the women’s 1500), the pacers did their work and the runners simply didn’t go with them. Again, it’s a world championship year – I wouldn’t be shocked if the athletes are just more interested in working on tactics until after Beijing, and then they can chase times. I guess we’ll see… Next, Pre has historically had all event winners run a victory lap, and they’re always willing to do it, mostly enthusiastically but at times more bemused. This year, we had a lot of them just not do it. One of them was Tyson Gay. I happen to be a Tyson Gay fan, although I’m bothered by his positive test last year, but one of my long-time complaints is that Tyson is just kind of…not pleasant on the track. He routinely ignores the flower girls after winning races, doesn’t acknowledge the crowd, etc. In the case of the flower girls, they’re little kids volunteering, and they’ve been told they HAVE to give him those flowers – I mean, the guy doesn’t have to be Usain Bolt personality wise, but don’t be a jerk to little kids! Anyway, he could use some feel-good with the fans, and after his run he just walked off the track and didn’t acknowledge anyone, while Justin Gatlin was out there shaking hands and taking pictures and signing programs and doing his best to rebuild a following. It was just disheartening.

All in all, from a competition standpoint? I think it’ll be tough to beat.

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Nike, Samsung, Vin Lanana and Tom Jordan put on another fantastic meet in Eugene yesterday, but it would be hard to tell that from the TV coverage – the ratings of which will be used to prop up the argument that nobody wants to watch track outside of the Olympics. While Hayward put on her best dress and brought all her friends as always, NBC once again showed that it has little feel for the sport aside from the sprints.

I want to say this up front: Ato Boldon, (@AtoBoldon) is one of the best track announcers for TV alive. He does credit to the sport – but I say that with the caveat that Ato’s strength lies in the sprints. Ato, love you man, but you just don’t know the distance events and it shows. (UPDATE: Ato and my intrepid commentor below point out that Ato doesn’t cover the distance events. They’re right, and that’s lazy work on my part. My apologies to Ato, and his willingness to engage on this is one of the reasons he’s…well, he’s Ato. Love the man.) Aside from Ato, however, NBC has a sad cast of characters out there. Dwight Stones, bless his heart, is just not good. He knows his jumps, but hearing him cover them just drains them of excitement (although being forced to cover every field event in two 20 second bursts could be the problem, more on that later). I, like many track fans, watch the Diamond League meets online at Universal Sports, and have been spoiled by the British announcers there – despite being a bit too prone to comments about the weight/appearance of the female athletes, these guys know the sport. They know the athletes, the tendencies, the tactics, the times. They’re the Monday Night Football crew of track.

But aside from that, the actual coverage – aside from the sprints and the Bowerman mile – is atrocious. The production decisions lack any sign that there is a familiarity with the sport. Let’s review:

  • Women’s 3000 – NBC covered the first 1600, when the pack is essentially jogging behind the pacers and nothing is really happening, then just as the racing started, cut to Dwight Stones doing a standalone about field events under the stands (with no clips of the action he was describing), then commercials. After commercials, we were treated to the last 200 meters of a Moroccan woman running by herself. Even I was bored by the action on the screen. You guys! The viewing public doesn’t understand pacers, and watching the crowd circle the track together isn’t good TV. Show us the start, do your field bit and commercials, then let us see the racing after the pacers drop out and have someone in the booth who understands distance racing to paint the picture. Like this guy. Watching a woman win all by her lonesome is bad TV. Watching her make moves and pull the pack apart makes that finish intriguing and exciting and contextual. AND IT TAKES THE SAME SCREEN TIME.
  • Field events – We saw three brief clips of high jumps (a Chaunte Lowe miss, Shkolina miss, and Chicherova’s winning jump), one bad Britney Reese jump, two clips from the shot, one hammer throw, one triple jump. All of these clips lacked any sort of context, and we saw one winning effort (Reese Hoffa in the shot). Women’s pole vault and discus, and men’s javelin just didn’t exist. And a lot of closeups of Dwight Stones talking. We got no visual showing us the final standings in field events. For this, Runnerspace was contractually forbidden from showing or discussing Friday night’s triple jump, discus and hammer throw? There were some really good stories in the field, and they were largely ignored – but hey, we got to see every possible pre- and post-race second of a rather pedestrian 200 meters, so I guess it’s okay.
  • The women’s steeplechase had a world leading time and a great race, and if all you did is watch the TV coverage, you’d have no idea there was even a steeplechase run. To reiterate: NBC spent well over a minute of airtime showing the blowout finish of the women’s 3000, but zero time even mentioning the world-class and thrilling steeplechase that had just happened.
  • I understand that NBC isn’t going to spend air time talking about A and B qualifying times, because that’s more complex than the average viewer really needs or probably wants to get. But as Ryan said, how can you not at least mention Olympic implications? For the millionth time, context is everything.

The shame of this is that the Pre Classic is a TV-ready event. It’s scheduled to work on TV, and NBC still blows it. Universal Sports covers these events, and manages to show all the events – granted, they don’t have the commercials to run that NBC does, but even that is workable – add 30 minutes, make it a 2 hour show, and use the last 30 to provide a good, rich recap of the events that weren’t live. Doing it the way NBC is doing it isn’t just robbing track fans, which I can imagine they wouldn’t worry about, but it’s robbing themselves of an opportunity to grow a new audience and expand their sports platform.

I know we’re supposed to be glad that NBC covers the sport at all, and I am glad of it. The frustration is not that I didn’t get to see every second of the men’s 5000 (by the way – NBC handled the 5000 very well, so credit where credit is due!), but that I watched 90 minutes of mostly missed opportunities. Partner up with Runnerspace and FloTrack – these guys know the venue and the sport intimately! Use their knowledge and let them pick up some knowledge on professional coverage. There’s talent in them there online streaming fellas – why not recruit and put a better product on screen? I get that you don’t want your Saturday coverage blown by Friday streaming, but did it actually serve any purpose to forbid them to cover the triple jump? Heck, put one of your producers in the Runnerspace booth and make a judgment call on site. Barring a world record or something equally shocking, it’s unlikely their stream is going to be picked up by CBS and spoil your scoop that Christian Taylor jumped 57’9”. So your guy says yeah, go ahead and cover the TJ, but don’t mention the American Record that just happened in the hammer throw – but you can tease it for TV, and here’s how. See how you just made your broadcast better? And it would take two hours of a producer’s time.

What are your thoughts? Ideas for improving TV coverage of the sport? Where am I wrong? These are just my observations and opinions, but I know I’m not the only one frustrated by what we see on American coverage.


Earlier this month, Lashinda Demus said what’s been on the minds of many track fans for a while – at least in the US, track is a dying sport. In the wake of that, the blogs saw a resurgence in the ongoing “how can we fix this” discussion – See here, here, here, here, and here for some of the good bits (and don’t forget the comments section – lots of useful nuggets in there). Here, in no particular order, are what seem to be the consensus good ideas (with a few others that weren’t so much consensus as just good ideas). It’s my blog, so I made some editorial decisions…:)

In-stadium fixes
* Beer/food
* Giveaways – tshirts, thunder sticks
* Music
* Mascots/entertainment
* Shorten the meet!
* Money – prize money, big bold and advertised
* Stats on the screens (if you have one) – a la DL stream – show WL/WR/AR/AL/whatever is relevant as the event is unfolding

Pre-meet/athlete fixes
* Marketing
* Marketing
* Promotion
* Sponsors
* Marketing
* Smaller/discipline specific meets (jumps/throws a la Europe, distance a la Oxy, sprints a la nobody)
* Money – prize money, big bold and advertised
* Marketing

Perhaps I should have mentioned marketing a bit more. This is sort of beating a dead horse, but the Oxy High Performance meet is a USATF meet – and it’s mentioned nowhere on their site! I looked around the site, and while they have a place for meet directors to report results, they specifically say the results will be put in a database but not online. WHY NOT??! I love Track and Field News, but USATF is exactly  where results should be available. And I haven’t even started talking about what the USATF isn’t doing off the website. Where are you guys? Do you listen? Do you exist? Jill Geer, the communications director for USATF, made a good point – that American interest in track spiked around the 1984 and 1996 Olympics, when the biggest meet of all happened on our soil. So her prescription for the sport? USOC – you guys make it happen.

Jill – don’t be so short-sighted! Your organization has a responsibility here, and you can’t just slough it off on the USOC. The silence from USATF during this discussion is not just worrying, it’s downright damn insulting to the fans. The USATF likes to say it’s all about the athletes, and to some degree that’s a good thing. But by ignoring the fans – and I don’t just mean not providing the best product, but actively ignoring a loud and growing cry for change from the fans – you’re choking off the very source of support that the athletes need. The USATF, when faced with any question about their way of doing things, sticks to the status quo as though it’s oxygen. Nick Symmonds and all the athletes clamoring for looser sponsorship regs can attest to this. Rather than listen, the USATF gets in their defensive posture and trots out spokespeople and surrogates to tell us that they’re staying with the status quo because the status quo is what we do.

Really, guys? Nike will pull sponsorship dollars if the sport’s visibility is increased? REALLY?

Okay, that’s my brief (and very edited) rant about the USATF – I think you can see that in my opinion, the biggest problem with the sport right now lies directly with them.

So, about fixing things. Let’s go over some of these ideas. As discussed, marketing is a big issue here. Flotrack, Runblogrun, etc., do a great job, but they only market to track nerds like me – it’s a closed audience. USATF putting events on their site (as any other large professional organization would sorry sorry I’ll stop…) would be a closed, but larger, audience. But what about newspapers, tv? We can’t just bitch that they don’t cover us – you have to ram the information down their throat. Press releases, PR events, emails, whatever works to get free media – and they will cover you! Hell, it’s a new age – every large city has an “ist” site now – LAist, Seattleist, etc., and they’d cover it in their own snarky way. The point is, you have to ask for attention repeatedly, and you will get it. There should be volunteers wandering after road races, handing out flyers for meets like Oxy – hey, it works for other road races, let’s get in the mix! Get volunteers at street fairs, even. Get local and get involved!

There are so many options for meets that would improve things – when I see people writing about them, there’s something of a silver-bullet search, but really there is no reason to pick just one option. Meets should be shorter, absolutely (but sometimes that doesn’t work, and that’s okay, says Penn Relays and every high school championship meet ever). Move them along, keep the fields a bit smaller and close the gaps between events. Let’s try duals again. Let’s try the discipline specific meets, like the jumps and throws meets they have in Europe (Drake Relays Vault in the Mall, KU Relays shot put already do this), distance events like Oxy, or speed-specific (sprints and hurdles) meets which, to my knowledge, no one is currently doing. Hell, follow Drake Relays and Manchester’s lead and run a normal meet but have an invitational 100 meters run inside a mall the day before to draw media attention.

Speaking of gimmicks, why not gimmick events during meets? There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Mt. SAC ran the Puma mile, with bonus money for sub-4 or sub 4:30 miles for the men and women, and last year at Mt. SAC they had a speed gun up and had sprinters running against each other to get the highest speed on the gun – people *loved* it. Some road races now do gender head starts – see Geb and Paula Radcliffe going head-to-head in a half-marathon earlier this year, she with a head-start and money on the line for first finisher. Why not let Wallace Spearmon race Allyson Felix with a similar setup over 200 meters? Put money on the line, winner take all – you think the crowd wouldn’t be dying to see who wins that?

Music between events (during events? – think about a thumping soundtrack to the 5000 meters we saw at Oxy last week), or during athlete introductions. And let’s ham it up – look at the nonsense the NBA does during introductions. It’s ridiculous, but people go crazy for it, it’s human nature. Beer! Let people have a damn beer. Have entertainment, a band, freaking mascots running around. Put important information up on a screen or announce it OFTEN. Let the crowd know what’s at stake. Have athletes throw t-shirts in the stands after their race (okay, they can have a minute to catch their breath). Hey, track professionals: It is not engaging to watch runners slowly work their way off the track and disappear after a race. I saw in comments somewhere, why don’t the athletes put their name on their singlet? It’s a great point – are these people shy? Your name is your brand, you’re a professional, put your name on your damn back so the people we drag to meets to introduce them to the sport can see, “Oh, there’s Nick Symmonds, got it” instead of trying to figure out which guy in the OTC singlet we’re pointing at. (Nick’s a bad example, because he’s easy to describe. Andrew Wheating is another bad example. Let’s think about getting our friends to locate Dan Huling during a race…)

I know, I’m putting some of the onus on the athletes. Well guess what, buttercup? You have to pitch in. Look at soccer – nobody leaves the pitch, win or lose, without applauding the crowd. WNBA does post-game interviews FOR the crowd. Athletes sometimes have to give a little more of themselves to help their sport (caveat: some athletes are already very giving of their time. As an example, Nick Symmonds, Andrew Wheating, Shannon Rowbury and David Torrence were amazing at Oxy about responding to shouted requests and all came over to sign autographs and take photos. The buzz in the stands afterward is *exactly* why more athletes should be doing this). Even those who are super fan-friendly should be open to some change in their meet routine to help the sport

As a side note, can we stop saying the drug issue is part of the problem? It’s bullshit. It’s an excuse. I don’t see empty baseball stadiums. I don’t see empty football stadiums. Both sports have drug problems miles worse than ours, and much better documented. The average fan might be outraged about it, but they still showed up to see Barry Bonds swing a bat. If Usain Bolt was suspected of doping, people would still show up to watch him run as long as he was running. Make the sport more engaging for the fans, and sprinters can be shooting up steroids at the starting line for all they care. (See: MMA, WWE)

So here’s where we get to the nitty-gritty. How does all this stuff happen? Obviously, as discussed, the USATF will be doing none of the things listed above. Unless…unless we force them. You know, they do have an annual meeting. Those of us who are involved, stakeholders like Runblogrun, heck, meet organizers who would like to pitch a better product – why not storm the castle? The sponsorship kerfuffle last year at least got on the agenda. Not a lot came of it, but they were forced to at least recognize it.

And here’s a really crazy idea: Why not do it ourselves? Putting on a track meet is an undertaking – more so than putting on a road race, for which there are now specialty consulting firms. But it can be done. Why not a Flotrack branded distance event? Why not an LA Times sprints meet? Why not why not why not…the options are really limitless, if we are willing to take the chance and do the work. It could fail, some of these ideas may turn out to be crap, but just maybe we show the USATF that you can draw a crowd to a meet with a new way of doing things.

In a way, we’re revisiting the battles our athletes fought with the AAU in the 1970’s, but we, the fans and track ecosystem, are in on the solution this time. Pre isn’t around to put on an international dual meet (Wait…there’s another idea!). What do you think; can we gather together and make a change without the institutional support? Or do we have to just wait for the USATF, and meanwhile watch the American track scene outside of Eugene, Des Moines and Philly wither up and die?


There’s been a lot of talk lately, about bringing the mile (and with it, the two-mile) back to the high school track scene as a standard. Let me go on record as saying I support the hell out of this!

Of course, the mile never truly went away, and it’s been gathering steam for a while now. Alan Webb publicly pursued the high school mile record in 2001 – not the 1500 or 1600, but the mile. Edward Cheserek is on a sub-4 quest, following Lucas Verzbicas’ chase last year. As high school track continues to grow, more and more elite runners are seeking out the mile, and larger meets are starting to feature it. But still, at the “official” level, states run either the 1500 or 1600, and the 3000 or 3200 – keeping the official measurements in line with the collegiate and international standards.

There is, of course, some opposition to this idea in the chattering class. Arguments run from the need to keep track records and measurements consistent from the high school to college to international level, to the cost of having to change the tracks themselves.

Let’s be serious for a minute. We certainly want some consistency from the high school to the international level. But high school basketball doesn’t play four 15 minutes quarters – and college basketball is stranger yet, with just two 20 minute halves. The paint is different – a narrow rectangle in high school, wide one in college and the pros, and some weird pyramidish thing in international competition. The 3-point lines are different at every level. Has anyone suffered for this?

High school throwers use different implements from those used in international competition – has record-keeping or our ability to compete suffered? Hurdlers jump at different heights. Yet we survive.

And concern for records and competition is silly – have collegiate or international runners abandoned the mile? Have we stopped tracking records for the mile and two-mile? The Puma Mile, Bowerman Mile, Oslo Bislett games would all suggest differently. Despite running the 1500 in the Olympics, it’s clear that international runners in fact covet the mile record most of all. It’s just different. The whole world celebrates Roger Bannister – does anyone even know who the first to break 3:30 in the 1500 is*? It’s just different. Pros agree. Collegians agree. So why not let the kids chase that milestone, too?

Just as shot putters start throwing a bigger weight, basketball players learn a new 3-point line, and hurdlers have to clear higher barriers, high school milers will adjust to the 1500 in college (where, by the way, they’ll still have plenty of opportunities to challenge the mile).

As for the expense? I was surprised the first time I heard this argument, but I figured everyone’s entitled to their kooky opinions, but I’ve seen it more than once since, from people who should have a clue. Folks, we’re not going to rip up the tracks and throw down 440-yard ovals again. We’re talking about painting a new stripe a couple dozen feet from the 1600 start line. Of course, this is assuming that tracks don’t already have a mile starting line painted – most I’ve seen do. Even in the poorest district, I’m willing to bet the coach could spring $15 for some white paint at the hardware store. And let’s face it – the poorest districts aren’t hosting championship meets – the tracks that do host championships largely already have the mile marked out.

This is kind of a no-brainer. American high school track is picking up steam, and the athletes are getting stronger, and getting more public attention, every year. And while sprinters do get press – remember when Jeff Demps ran 10.01 in Eugene his senior year in high school? – it’s the mile that really spills the ink. When Webb ran 3:53 in Eugene, that was national news. Verzbicas overshadowed everyone last year. So let’s let the kids run the race that they, and the public, love.

*obviously, yes. Some people know that. But nobody really cares.

Don’t blame the rule.


Controversial rule knocks Jamaican out of worlds 100 final

I’m sorry, but no. When Bolt left his blocks a full tenth of a second ahead of the gun – a century in sprint time – Usain Bolt knocked himself out of the 100 final. The rule is the rule. He knew it, it’s been there for two years and enforced for a year, and it didn’t spring up out of nowhere and cheat him out of what was due him.

The rule, which replaced a rule which charged the first false start to the field, with the second false start resulting in disqualification, is unpopular. It’s unsurprisingly very unpopular with sprinters and former sprinters, the most public, frequent and vehement complaints coming from Ato Boldon. He predicted when the rule first went into effect that we would see exactly the scenario that happened today – a superstar disqualified on the biggest stage. In my opinion, that prescience (which wasn’t particularly hard to predict, as stars have been dq’d on the big stage before, although none with Bolt’s stature) does not mean he’s right about the rule.

The arguments for the rule, eliminating the old “first false start charged to the field” rule, was that the rule was being used for gamesmanship, and was causing problems with meet and broadcast schedules.

The arguments against run the gamut, but in range from “we’ve never done it that way” to suggesting it’s too draconian to penalize an athlete for one mistake, to even suggesting it will depress fan interest in the sport if…well, if today happens.

The arguments for the rule are completely true. For the average fan, it was confusing and boring. The average, non-track-nut fan sees a false start and assumes the offending athlete will be dq’d. When they’re not, they don’t know what’s going on. The meet drags on, because every heat, every sprint race, has interminable delays while runners get set, leave the blocks, then have to get set again. And we all agree that the people we need to be reaching are the average, non-track-nut fans.

There is also a great deal of truth to the idea that they will be disappointed when a race is run without the star they expected to see. Nobody wants that.

But let’s be realistic here. The fans don’t just want to see Bolt. They don’t just want to see him win. They want a spectacle. Whether Bolt runs a 9.4 or storms off the track like he did this morning, the average viewer will be left stunned at what they’ve seen. And does anyone truly think that someone tuning in this morning just to watch Bolt, and no other reason, was planning to tune in tomorrow morning to see the women’s steeplechase? That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that this spectacle has already created a new storyline and budding spectacle over the weekend. Had Bolt run 9.66 this morning and won, the headlines tomorrow would read “Bolt wins, no record”. The story would be that he isn’t up to his old standards. (Unless he ran 9.4, of course – but again, that’s the spectacle viewers want) And what random person will tune in to see a guy not live up to his own standards? But now…the world is talking about this. People are horrified, sad for him, upset at the rule, but they’re talking about the sport. And through the week, excitement is going to build about Bolt’s races this weekend. Will he start clean in the 200? He’s going to run angry now, we’ve never seen him like this, what could he do? The whole Jamaican team is upset, will the 4 x 100 be special now? Ratings for his races this weekend are going to explode.

I am in no way suggesting that it’s a good thing that Bolt was disqualified. I feel terrible for him, and I desperately wanted to watch him run, like everyone else. My point is that this isn’t some debacle that will spell the end of the sport. Rather, it creates new tension, new spectacle for the average viewer, and it holds the athletes to a proper standard.

Which brings us to another argument – that we didn’t get a “true” champion today, because of the rule. This is false on its face. In order to become a champion, the athlete needs to stay healthy, stay in their lane, not false start, get through rounds, and be faster than all other athletes under legal conditions at race time. Fail in just one of those ways, you are not the champion. History is full of champions who were not the best or the fastest, but who met all the criteria – health, fitness, stamina, and being the best under legal conditions. Let’s not forget that the race was also run without Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, the two fastest runners in history not named Bolt. If he’d won, would we say we didn’t get a “true” champion because of their absence? Of course not. They didn’t stay healthy. Not their fault, but those are the breaks. To be a champion, one must earn the title in all ways. Yohan Blake, today’s winner, didn’t schedule the World Championships nor did he shove Bolt out of his blocks (I’ve seen the video, for those blaming Blake. Sorry, he may have twitched – slightly – but Bolt left on his own).

It is difficult to be a champion. And for winning to be meaningful, disappointment and failure must be possible, even likely. And for the people who view sports, we do it knowing our team or favorite athlete may fail, and that tension – the exquisite balance between sublime success and abject failure – is what keeps us coming back for more.

Don’t blame the rule. Usain Bolt left the blocks early. He was not mentally prepared to be the champion today. It’s sad and frustrating for everyone involved, but he is a professional and will prove or disprove his greatness in how he responds to this.

As has been said, there is no perfect false start rule – but in my opinion, the current rule is fair to the athletes whether they like it or not, and it provides an easy-to-understand and watchable event for the fans.

Please also refer to this and this article for more information.


Well, now that thousands of gallons of digital (and real-space) ink have been spilled in the topic of marathon world records, vis-à-vis Boston, I guess it’s time for me to weigh in. I’ve made my case (I don’t think Geoffrey Mutai’s or Ryan Hall’s times should be records) via blog comments and Twitter, but it’s a complex topic that requires a bit more verbosity than 140 characters or snarky comments allow.

First, I’ll address the “historic” aspect. I’ve heard so many times this week, while various pundits, bloggers and others have made their case for ratifying the Boston times as records, the Boston is a “historic” race – one article even listed the historic nature of the race as a specific reason for ratification! Look, this one isn’t complicated. The historic nature of the Boston course is actually the problem – they can’t, without throwing 115 years of history out the window, change their course. History and tradition have no bearing on world records. That’s the point of changing world records – they are by definition creating a new history and tradition. So please let this go. History is a great reason for running the Boston Marathon, but has nothing to do with record recognition.

Now we come to the elevation question. One of the reasons Boston isn’t record-certified is that it has a net elevation loss, meaning it is a downhill course. This could actually be a complicated issue – I mean, those of us who watched it or have run it (not me, I’m not a marathoner!) know that this is a rolling course and…for God’s sake it has a hill called “Heartbreak Hill” on it! Fair enough. A case can be made that those hills negate the elevation loss, but how do you roll that into certification worldwide? World records have certain criteria, and elevation loss/gain is one of them. If you give Boston a pass because of their hills, how do you quantify it? You’d need a complicated algorithm to quantify the…what, average slope? Many of the complaints about this issue is that we’re arguing about arcane formulas, and if you’re going to go down this particular road, you’re only adding layers and layers of arcane formulas. It’s a loser of an argument. Bottom line, the IAAF has made it simple. If your course is downhill – i.e. a net elevation loss of x per kilometer – it can’t be certified for records.

The clinching argument, to me, is the tailwind. The IAAF requires that start and finish lines be near one another, so the course is either out and back or a loop (this, btw, makes things easy for race directors – it eliminates elevation and wind as factors, in one fell swoop). The reason for this is that a point-to-point course could potentially be affected by a tailwind giving runners an advantage over runners on a loop or out and back course.

Boston had an 18 mile per hour tailwind for 26.2 miles. Period. It’s just reality; anyone who runs knows that a tailwind makes running easier. This is a fairly simple argument, but we can certainly get more complicated with it…

Distance running is no different from sprinting with regard to their rules – in fact, while sprinters and jumpers are subject to windspeeds when they perform, any athlete running 400 meters or further on the track is not, for record keeping purposes. Why? Because they’re running on a what is effectively a loop course, so they have equal parts tailwind and headwind.  Sprinters and jumpers are not credited with records if the tailwind is more than 2.0m per second.

2.0m per second seems like nothing – they’re clearly going faster than that! But this rule is less about being “pushed” by wind than about wind resistance. The faster the wind is going in your direction, the less air you have to push through during your race, and the more energy you can expend towards going fast. The same is true in marathoning; if you have a tailwind, you’re expending less energy to move through the air in front of you, and that provides a cumulative benefit in energy conservation, which translates to speed. Hence, loop and out and back courses work to negate that just as the track oval does, by providing equal (or near-equal) parts tailwind and headwind.

But on Monday at Boston, they weren’t dealing with 2.0m per second tailwinds, or anything close to it. The wind wasn’t just reducing wind resistance, it was going significantly faster than the runners, and effectively pushing them. Let’s be honest here – if you normally run 12.8 mph with a 42” stride and have an 18 mph tailwind, you’re going to find yourself going 12.9 mph with a 44” stride, covering more ground in less time with less energy – and over two hours, this will net in a significant benefit to your time.

So the bottom line is the runners at Boston had a significant advantage that requires the IAAF not to recognize the times as records.

Suggesting, as some have, that this is about “stats geeks” or “arcane formulas” is nonsense. The rules are simple. Put your start and finish near each other so you don’t get unfair tailwinds. If you have a net elevation loss, it’s a downhill course. The end. That isn’t complicated or arcane. Boston has known for many years that their course isn’t record-eligible, but has not protested the rules. Runners going to Boston know records there won’t count.

I feel for Mutai and Hall, I really do. When I saw what was going to happen, I was (already wound up by Desi Davila’s race) yelling at my computer monitor, and when I realized it wouldn’t count, it broke my heart for them. I was even outraged. But you don’t determine records by the level of outrage or inspiration. And this doesn’t, as some have suggested, blow some grand opportunity for the public to grasp marathoning and distance running. You think the general public gives a tinkers damn about this argument? Those who pay any attention to it will have seen two amazing, inspirational races, and all this arguing over elevation and windspeed is just inside baseball for people who are already sold on the sport.

So what is to be done with these times? What do we call them? And why can’t distance runners just have easily understood and recognized records like everybody else??!

Well, think about all the sports records out there…is the public turned off by the controversy over baseball’s home run record? Do we count Barry Bonds’ records? What about Sadaharu Oh? Think about all the arcana that goes into baseball records – we have pre- and post-liveball era records. We have “modern era” records. And this increases the public’s interest. Records are accompanied by controversy; it’s the nature of the beast, and what makes the records so fascinating in the first place.

And what do we call these times? Why not take a page from sprinting, that paragon of easy-to-understand records? Remember this? Tyson Gay, in 2008 at the Olympic Trials, ran a 9.68 100 meters, smashing the existing world record…but with a 4.1m/s tailwind. So you know what they called it? The fastest 100 meters run under any conditions. Is that so difficult or complicated?

And rather than complaining that he was cheated out of a record, you know what Tyson Gay took away from the race? He said it showed him that his body could go that fast, and now he just needs to do it without the wind (which, ultimately, he has). Speaking for myself only, that’s certainly the lesson I take away from Mutai’s 2:03:02…well, now we know it can be done. The psychological barrier is gone, and it’s a matter of time before someone does it on a certified course – frankly, I predict it’ll happen before the end of the year.

And is that not a legacy, too? Let’s honor what he did, call it what it is, and stop wasting our energy trying to get records applied because we really, really want it.

Geoffrey Mutai, on Monday in Boston, ran the fastest marathon run under any conditions. And that’s pretty extraordinary by itself.

2:03:02.


When I tell friends about going to track meets or getting up at ungodly hours to watch marathons online, I often get some variation of “But it’s so boring! They’re just going around and around/running for hours. How do you watch that?” I’m sure you’re all familiar with this phenomenon.  We all offer up the same “I dunno, it’s interesting to me, I guess” defense, in one way or another.

I’ve decided to take another tack lately, at least to open the door to an explanation. “Yeah, going to concerts is boring. They just do the same thing for hours.”

This is obviously stupid, of course. But think about the metaphor here. The drummer is just banging on drums for hours. The guitarist is just strumming along. The singer, just saying words in a musical way…for hours! Objectively, this is true. But anyone who enjoys concerts understands why you go. Every song has its own melody, its own nuance. Even within songs, there are twists and turns, new rhythms and chords, a solo here and there. The magic and the joy lies within those melodies, the beat, the changing rhythms, the mid-song key changes. Those words mean something different – a love song now, a revenge tale over here. Even when you’ve heard the song a hundred times before, each performance offers the possibility of a new insight, a new discovery, a new joy.

This is what running is. Every lap, every mile in a marathon, music is being made. There is art and science happening, right before our eyes. Runners adjusting to one another, forcing others to adjust, making decisions, revealing habits and fears and secrets about themselves with each surge or lead change. It’s a visual concert with a thousand possibilities every time you look at something new.

Today’s Boston Marathon is a wonderful example of this. New Zealand’s Kim Smith took an immediate lead and just poured it on from the start, stretching her lead out, mile by mile. One could say this was boring – just watching a skinny lady run by herself for over an hour. But every mile was a question. Will she continue to pull away? What is her plan? Is there a plan? Will the pack catch her – and if so, when? how? Will they speed up or will she slow down? On Twitter, there was discussion of her form; her arm motion is very ungainly, so it appears as though she’s flailing and suffering. But if you watched closely, you saw that it was an illusion; her shoulders and hips are perfectly still, the essence of good form. So it gave you something else to focus on…are her shoulders rising, is the set of her face changing?

Ultimately, she suffered some sort of calf injury that took her out of the race, but the degeneration as she struggled to fight through it – and the courage! – added even more drama. And then we were treated to a slugfest as Desi Davila and Caroline Kilel traded the lead, becoming more and more aggressive as the race wore on.

After two plus hours of watching women “just running”, we were treated to the answer to all the questions that had formed! The race came down to the last 200 meters, and at the end, neither woman had anything left to give, Kilel collapsing after winning the race and having to be taken to the medical tent. It was drama, love, passion, and pure guts at its most primal.

Of course, this isn’t for everyone. It’s like baseball, in that to truly get this, you have to start to understand the game before and within the game. Otherwise, a 0-0 pitching duel is boring – while someone who understands the subtexts realizes that every pitch is a story, every movement on the field contains a pathos revealing strength, weakness, opportunity. Without knowing those subtexts, it’s just guys throwing a ball at a stick and nobody scores.

Why draw all these comparisons? Because baseball is huge. People do understand the subtext. They do appreciate the pitching duel. And while a smartass comment and lengthy metaphor won’t convert the world, it serves to highlight the reality that to sell our sport to our friends and grow it, we need to teach the subtext. It can be done! Bit by bit, people do get it. Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay are our home-run hitters, and we can let them draw fans to the stadium…but we have to teach people, while they’re there, to appreciate every at-bat. We can build a new following for track, but we have to start thinking differently about how to explain it to those who aren’t already in the fold.


stadium

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.

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The Indoor World Championships are over!  Very exciting, some big surprises, some expected outcomes, but always very watchable.  The showstopper moment, as far as I’m concerned was Lolo Jones and not just the unbelievable race she ran, but her beautifully cathartic reaction to it.  But I made some predictions, so let’s see how I did, yeah?

Men:

60 Meters:  I said Daniel Bailey, Mike Rodgers and Dwain Chambers – just reverse the order.  I had the right names, wrong gold and bronze!  Chambers drugged ran a drugged strong 6.48 for the best drugged time in the world this year.

60 Meter Hurdles:  I said Trammell, Robles, Svoboda – Svoboda was 5th, but Robles and Trammell put on a freaking show, with Robles having to set a Championship record of 7.34 to just beat out Trammell’s American record 7.36!  In third was David Oliver, who I think I’ve overlooked before (my bad!)

400 Meters: I said Batman, and maybe a US sweep with Ireland’s Gillick possibly sneaking in the medals.  Turns out Chris Brown led from the gun to win in 45.96, followed by William Collazo and Jamaal Torrance, but the real story was Batman and Gillick tangling on the last corner and both winding up not just out of the medals, but badly out of the medals. Really tactically bad running, and Gillick was crushed by his mistake (Batman seemed none too pleased himself).

800 Meters: I said Ismail, Lalang, Kaki.  Close, but no cigar – Kaki won in 1:46.23, Lalang second, and the Pole Adam Kszczot (just pronounce that, I dare you) took the bronze.  Really glad I pooh-poohed the eastern Europeans in this one.

1500 Meters: I said Mekonnen, Ali, then took a pass.  I got Mekonnen right (3:41.86), silver and bronze went to Iguider and Keitany.  It was a pretty pedestrian, which was disappointing, but it was fun to watch for all the lead changes; it turned out to be exciting in the end!

3000 Meters: I said Choge, Lagat and Sanchez.  My man Kip wound up winning in a blazing 7:37.97, Sanchez was second (so I got that part of the order right), with Sammy Mutahi third.  Choge had a hugely disappointing race; way back almost 20 seconds off the pace.  Congrats, Kip!

Women:

60 Meters:  I said Jeter, Campbell-Brown and Jones-Ferrette, and as with the men’s 60, got the names right but order wrong.  Campbell Brown scorched a 7.00, followed by Jones-Ferrette and Jeter.

60 Meter Hurdles: LOLO! LOLO! LOLO! LO(squared)!  Okay, that’s out of my system.  I said Lopes-Schliep, Lolo, and Ginnie Powell. Turned out to be Lolo (LOLO! LOLO! LOLO!) in a Championship record 7.72 (seriously, watch it again.  I’ll wait), followed by Felicien (who I totally overlooked), and Lopes-Schliep, who just continues to grow on me.

400 Meters: Okay, I said Felix, Dunn and Firova.  It was pointed out to me that Allyson Felix didn’t make the team, with the unspoken assertion that I’m an idiot.  Sigh.  Anyway, I got Dunn and Firova right!  They were 1-2, with Dunn winning in 51.04, followed by Stambolova.

800 Meters:  I said Meadows, Pierce and a Russian in third – real brave on that bronze pick.  Turned out to be Savinova (hey, a Russian!) in 1:58.26, Meadows in a national record for second, and Alysia Johnson setting a PR in third.  Pierce PR’d too, but just missed out on the medals.  She’s going to be tough outdoors!

1500 Meters: I said Burka, Jamal and Gezahegne.  Would someone please remind me to check the actual start lists before I do this?  Jeebus.  Jamal didn’t run.  So it turned out to be Gezahegne in 4:08.14, Natalia Rodriguez getting some satisfaction after her Berlin disaster, and Burka in third.  Again, got two of the names right, wrong order.

3000 Meters: I said Defar, Ejigu and Cheruiyot – my prediction of a scorcher proved unfounded, as this was just painfully pedestrian, but I did get all three medalists right, although Ejigu and Cheruiyot switched. It was Defar in 8:51.17 with a crazy-fast kick, Cheruiyot and Ejigu.

Blanka screamed a bit, and won with a surprisingly low height, and Jessica Ennis blew away the Pentathlon field with a Championship record 4937 points. Bryan Clay won the Heptathlon, while Ashton Eaton was busy setting a new Heptathlon world record at the NCAA championships in Fayetteville – congrats to Ashton and Bryan, and I can’t wait to see a US sweep in the Decathlon in 2012!  🙂

All in all, I think I did way better than my Olympic predictions; I guess I’ve got more cred on the indoor scene than I thought!


Well, I failed to do predictions for Berlin last summer, so I might as well weigh in for the indoor championships that start…um, in about 10 hours.  So first I have to issue a caveat: this is my first year really following indoor track at the world level, so I’m still new to the game.  Also I’ve been busy and distracted.  And I’ll think of another excuse, unless I do really well and then I’ll say it’s because I’m awesome and know lots.  Anyway, this is for Rachel. 🙂

Men:

60 Meters:  Ivory Williams seems to be out, due to being an idiot, so that opens up the field a little bit.  I see 5 guys with a chance: Daniel Bailey, Dwain Chambers, Nesta Carter, Lerone Clarke and Mike Rodgers.  Throw out Clarke, and you’re down to four.  I think Bailey’s young but real, so I think it goes like this:  Daniel Bailey, Mike Rodgers, and Chambers for the bronze.  (I hope Nesta nudges his drug-addled ass, though)

60 Meter Hurdles:  This is down to Terrence Trammell and Dayron Robles.  I say Trammell, Robles, Svoboda.

400 Meters:  Batman!  Bershawn Jackson takes this, I think.  He looks unbeatable this year.  Could be a USA sweep here, but I don’t want to rule out Gillick from Ireland.

800 Meters:  Ismail Ismail looks monstrous so far; really tough to beat.  I see him coming in ahead of Boaz Lalang, with Abubaker Kaki third.  Eastern Europe has a couple guys that can fly, but these three are just too strong and too swift.

1500 Meters:  Wow, where to start?  Kenyans and Ethiopians, oh my!  Laalou, Iguider, Keitany, Gathimba, Mekonnen, Gebremedhin, Ruiz, Ali…so many strong runners to choose from.  This will be a monster race.  In the end, I think Mekonnen’s got the kick, then Ali, then someone else…I’m not even going to try.  This could turn into a quick race.

3000 Meters:  Kip!  Bernard Lagat is in phenomenal shape, you guys.  He’ll have a battle with Tariku Bekele, Sergio Sanchez, Augustine Choge, and Sammy Mutahi.  This is the showcase race in my opinion.  I think Choge is unstoppable, Lagat brings home a silver and Sanchez makes Spain proud.  But truly, this is wiiiide open.  Expect a tepid early pace and a screaming close over the last 1200 meters or so.

Women:

60 Meters:  Nobody is even in the same class as Carmelita Jeter and LaVerne Jones-Ferrette.  Jeter wins, Veronica Campbell-Brown in third.

60 Meter Hurdles:  I so want my girl Lolo to win this, but I don’t think she’s all the way back just yet.  Priscilla Lopes-Schliep continues her bombardment of the sport, followed by Lolo and Seattle native Ginnie Powell.

400 Meters: Allyson Felix takes her new Nike duds to a gold, with Debbie Dunn and Firova following.  If only Sanya Richards-Ross was here!  #sweep

800 Meters:  Kinda loaded here!  Russia is (suspiciously) loaded, especially, with Savinova and Zinurova posting super quick times.  I see a quick race shaping up, with Meadows edging out Anna Pierce, with one of the Russians in third.

1500 Meters:  Maryam Jamal, Gelete Burka, Gezahegne and Jelagat make this as loaded as the men’s 1500.  It’s Burka’s crazy fast kick, Jamal, and Gezahegne.

3000 Meters:  Can anyone run with Meseret Defar?  No, anyone cannot.  Sentayehu Ejigu has challenged her, and I think is well positioned for silver, with Vivian Cheruiyot grabbing bronze.  I think Defar pushes the pace early to try and break those two, and it’s going to turn into a rout – possibly a one-woman rout.

I’d love to cover the field events for you, but I just don’t have the know-how.  I know it’ll be nice to see Blanka Vlasic give us a primal scream again (Oh, how I’ve missed you, Blanka), Ennis dominates the Pentathlon if she’s healthy (Fountain and Dobrynska duke it out if not)

Okay, girls and boys, that’s it!  The fun starts at 6am PDT tomorrow on Universal Sports, so let’s all get on there and clog up the intertubes!