Monday, August 20, 2007

The World Track and Championships Start This Week: Who Cares?

The World Track and Field Championships will start later this week in Osaka, Japan. Did you know that? Do you care? Chances are the answer to both of those questions is no, unless you are one of the few, the proud, the track and field fans in America. Believe me, there are a lot or fewer of them than in 1983, when the first World Track and Field Championships were held in Helsinki, to great acclaim and large television audiences around the world. That meet was highlighted by Mary Decker Slaney’s gutty victories in the 1,500 and 3,000-meter races, over the vaunted Russian juggernaut.

In this year’s championships, the primary story from an American standpoint will be Alan Webb’s quest to attain worldwide supremacy at 1,500 meters, or at least a medal. Webb broke Steve Scott’s long-standing U.S mile record, clocking a blazing 3:46:91 last month. The question with Webb isn’t speed, but rather if he can win a tactical race, as championship finals almost always turn out to be.

As usual, American sprinters will be in the hunt for medals, led by newcomer Tyson Gay and youngster Alison Felix. Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner may make a run at Michael Johnson’s 400-meter world record, if the conditions are right. Australian Craig Mottram will attempt to break the African stranglehold at 5,000 meters.

All of this will take place far under the radar of the average sports fan in America. Where once a major track and field championship event was must-see viewing, it is now relegated to minor-league status, along with boxing and horse racing, two other sports that have fallen by the wayside. Fake wrestling, hot-dog eating contests, and poker tournaments draw much larger ratings than track and field nowadays.

Of course, much of the explanation for this involves the use of performance enhancing drugs among the stars of the sport. Like cycling, track and field has paid a huge public relations penalty from the drug busts of athletes such as Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, and Justin Gatlin, who won both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints in the 2004 Olympics. Unlike in baseball and football, American sports fans are much less forgiving of drug cheats in track and field. In addition, the leaders of the sport have done a poor job of managing this problem, basically trying to sweep it under the rug until it got out of control. Now they are faced with the monumental task of trying to repair track’s tainted image.

The days of Slaney, Carl Lewis, and Edwin Moses as household names in American sports are long since over. Will those days ever return? It seems unlikely, but who knows? A stirring victory by Webb may allow the sport to gain a small foothold among garden variety of sports fans. By the way, if you would like to see the championships on television, they will shown for the most part on the Versus channel (it used to be known as the Outdoor Life channel). This is the same network that airs the Tour de France. Coincidence? You decide.

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