Track and field is a beautiful sport — even if it's not for everyone
Times reporter Bud Withers rekindled his romance with the sport of track and field last week at the Olympic Trials in Eugene. The sport is beguiling, exhilarating and occasionally exasperating, all at once.
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I rekindled an old romance last week. No, it wasn't anything that ran hot for a long time, more like an on-and-off relationship with somebody that doesn't ever quite leave you.
For the first time since the late 1990s, I covered a major track meet. It was the fifth Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., that I've witnessed at least in part, dating to 1972.
Forty years later, the sport is beguiling, exhilarating and occasionally exasperating, all at once. If anything, it's probably less a part of the national consciousness than it was in 1972, and it wasn't exactly the rage back then, either.
It's an acquired taste, something like escargot, all entwined in a subculture of splits and aiding winds and "A" and "B" standards. It's not as easily deconstructed as a fly ball over the fence or a completed pass over the goal line.
In the '70s, there was an ongoing dialogue about how track and field might advance itself into the realm of marquee sports. Back then, the NFL wasn't a monolith, baseball was trying to hang on to its popularity and college football and basketball were, well, quaint.
That train has long since left the station. Track got bogged down by drug scandals, poor translation for TV and lack of partisanship. There's no team for Philly or Boston or L.A. to root for.
So its following is left to the cognoscenti. Last weekend's decathlon world record by Ashton Eaton was magnificent — a local guy pushed to brilliance by a passionate home crowd. He stands to be one of a handful of U.S. Olympians you'll remember coming out of the London Games.
And yet, on the Monday after the meet, there were probably more sports-talk shows across the country addressing the 2013 NFL draft or the gunners for the Carolina Panthers than Eaton.
"We, as a collective of track and field, have fought the ball sports, the pro ball sports," says Jon Hendershott, associate editor of Track and Field News and a graduate of Roosevelt High and the University of Washington. "The athletes are so good; they deserve to be household names, and there are so very few that are.
"I've always felt track is its own greatest proponent and its own worst enemy."
What could be purer than a footrace, like you did as a 7-year-old?
But at the other extreme, what can you say about a sport that recently found itself flummoxed and without a solution to a dead heat for the last Olympic berth in the women's 100 meters?
Twenty-four hours after the event, USA Track and Field issued a statement that the tie would be broken either by coin toss or runoff. As God is my witness, the statement included this advisory headed "Coin toss protocol."
"The USATF representative shall bend his or her index finger at a 90-degree angle to his or her thumb. In one single action, the USATF representative shall toss the coin into the air, allowing the coin to fall to the ground ... "
The Eugene fans suffer such buffoonery well. They know how to stage, and receive, a track meet. They've seen most of the great ones, from Steve Prefontaine to Bob Seagren to Edwin Moses.
In 1972, they saw the mayor's kid, Jon Anderson, run to a place on the Olympic team in the 10,000 meters. Four years later, in the steeplechase, there was an Easterner named Mike Roche, who chased down the third-place runner coming over the last water jump for an apparent Olympic berth.
Then he tripped over the last barrier — those things don't give much — and chased down the third-place runner, again, at the wire. Old Hayward Field came unhinged. For resolve mixed with drama, it doesn't get much better.
The other day, Aretha Thurmond, the ebullient former Washington discus thrower, was musing on the healthy interaction between crowd and competitors, when she reached the summary quote.
"Track and field is awesome," she exclaimed.
She's preaching to the choir. But there are only so many services in Eugene.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
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Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-12.
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