The Problem With USA Track & Field: There Simply Is No Fire in the Belly

The 2009 U. S. National Track & Field Championship meet came and went with hardly a notice by its fan base and the nation’s press. This happened because basically there is no fan base of marketing value, and the nation’s traditional media (newspapers, television and radio) can hardly keep their doors open for business by covering a nonevent.

America used to be all about sports, and still is in some sports, but not track and field. Track and field is the orphan no one wants to adopt and nurture, mostly because its professionals are overpaid, underperformed and often dependent on banned substances (the fancy way of saying illegal drugs).

The American runners who used to dominate the world track scene have become so few and so lame as to be almost nonexistent. Our middle distance runners could muster only 1 of 36 possible medals from 800 meters to the marathon in last summer’s 2008 Beijing Olympics. We can’t even dominate the sprints anymore. Usain Bolt and the “Jamaica Me Fast” crowd has taken over track’s sprint world.

Apparently, the most covered events of the recent national championship meet revolved around LaShawn Merritt, Sanya Richards and Dwight Phillips. To wit:

LaShawn Merritt took the 400 in 44.50. Merritt won the Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, beating rival Jeremy Wariner, then ranked No. 1 in the world. Wariner did not compete in the nationals this year. Wariner is apparently waiting for the right moment to sneak up on Merritt and run by him. Despite Merritt’s success, he is far off of Michael Johnson’s world and American record of 43.18 in 1999.

Sanya Richards won the 400 in 50.05, far off of her American record of 48.70 set in 2006. Richards holds the American high school record of 50.69 set in 2002. In other words, her victory at the nationals this year was 64 one-hundredths of a second faster than 7 years ago. You decide how much progress is being made.

Dwight Phillips won the long jump with a leap of 28-01.50 (8.57m). Phillips won the Gold Medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and is chasing Mike Powell’s world record of 8.95m set in 1991.

Hazel Clark won the 800 in 2:00.79. The American high school record is 2:00.07 by Kim Gallagher in 1982. The American record of 1:56.40 is held by Jearl Miles-Clark, set in 1999.

Lopez Lomong won the 1500 in 3:41.68, a time that pales next to Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3:26.00 (1998) and Bernard Lagat’s American record of 3:29.30 (2005). Alan Webb, the American record-holder in the mile at 3:46.91 (2007), qualified in the 1500 prelims at 3:42.35, but apparently did not run in the finals. Webb could not even qualify for the U. S. team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A high schooler—Andrew Springer—has run 3:45.46 for the 1500 this year.

Enough examples of what is not happening. American track and field is not drawing any attention and media coverage because its athletes cannot compete at a level deserving of more attention and coverage.

If the performances by our athletes get any more underwhelming, track and field will not only enter a low point in American history, but may camp out there in the extended future.

One thing is for sure: Jeremy Wariner and Alan Webb have talent and conditioning but no one will ever figure that out unless they step onto the track to compete and, once there, believe they can win again.

Watching track and field in America right now is like giving the barn a fresh coat and then watching the paint dry. Even worse, track and field right now has the personality of an ashtray, and will soon be the butt of too many jokes among world’s elite performers.

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