World Championships an opportunity track and field must not ‘squander’


EUGENE, Ore. – Perhaps no other athlete has been as dominant in global track and field’s post-Usain Bolt era as American shot putter Ryan Crouser.

Crouser owns the four longest throws in history, seven of the top 10, including his 76-feet, 8 ¼ world record bomb at last year’s Olympic Trials. The throw added nearly a foot to Randy Barnes’ 31-year-old world record (75-10 ¼).

The Oregon native and former Texas star followed that up by defending his Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, breaking the 33-year-old Games record in the prelims and then eclipsing his own Olympic record on all six of his throws in the final. His last throw landed at 76-5 ½, nearly three feet further than East German Ulf Timmerman’s Olympic record from 1988 (73-8 ¾) and more than two feet longer than silver medalist Joe Kovacs.

And at 6-feet-7, 320 pounds and with a beard and head of red hair that seems to have a mind of its own, Crouser isn’t exactly hard to miss. Yet he can walk down the street unrecognized in most American cities outside of Eugene and Austin.

Or by the more than 800,000 viewers, mostly young adults, who subscribe to six-time U.S. 800-meter champion Nick Symmonds’ YouTube site.

“Tens of thousands of kids just obsessed with track and not a single one of them could tell you who Ryan Crouser is,” Symmonds said. “And that’s messed up. But it’s not Ryan Crouser’s fault. And it’s not the kids’ fault. It’s the powers that be that failed to connect those two in a meaningful way in marketing and entertainment.”

The most important World Championships in the event’s nearly 40-year history open Friday at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus, a place with a rich past that could prove pivotal to shaping the sport’s future.

“A huge moment for us,” said Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, “and we should be absolutely aware of that.”

For 10 star-studded, record-threatening days, a place that bills itself as Tracktown USA will be center stage on a summer global sports landscape left wide open by FIFA’s decision to move the World Cup to November because of host Qatar’s high temperatures.

“I want all our member federations to recognize that this isn’t just an isolated championships, you know, and then we move on to another city,” said Coe, the two-time Olympic 1,500 champion for Great Britain. “There are some opportunities here that we cannot allow to slide by.”

Sebastian Coe attends a press conference ahead of the Doha IAAF Diamond League in Doha, Qatar in 2019. Coe, .  (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)
Sebastian Coe attends a press conference ahead of the Doha IAAF Diamond League in Doha, Qatar in 2019. Coe, . (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

Starting with Oregon ‘22, followed by the Commonwealth Games and European Championships later this summer, track and field’s chance to fill the hole in the sports broadcasting schedule created by FIFA’s World Cup move offers the sport a unique opportunity to raise its profile globally and introduce the likes of Ryan Crouser to America.

“The opportunity that is created is that really for the next four years we have track and field sitting center stage in the most broadcastable part of the year, and if I move beyond the four years I can arguably say that for (six) years, and that’s an opportunity we musn’t squander,” Coe said.

“Every sport is wanting to get into the U.S.,” Coe continued. “It is still the most potent of the sports marketing environments. Every member federation I sit down with is doing everything it can to get into the U.S. and for good reason. We have that opportunity this year. I see this as very much a runway through to 2028 and in simple terms, we have to do everything we possibly can to create a greater perception and penetration of track and field not just in the U.S. but globally.

“But if you create that in the U.S., which is still the powerhouse of track and field, but perversely you still have athletes who are known globally but can still walk through their own towns in anonymity. We have a really important role and job to play here, and in my latest communication to member federations at the end of the year I have talked about the importance for all of us of making the most out of Oregon ’22.”

Max Siegel, CEO of USA Track & Field, the sport’s national governing body, has gotten the message.

“I share Seb’s point of view,” Siegel said in a recent interview with the Southern California News Group.

Siegel, like Coe views the World Championships as the launching pad” for a series of World Athletics and USATF competitions, marketing, broadcasting and outreach campaigns between Oregon ‘22 and “ the LA 2028 Olympics which gives an organizational bookend.”

“How can this not be squandered?” said former UCLA star Willie Banks, a world record-setting triple jumper and now a member of World Athletics’ council. “Let me put this in a positive way. This is our opportunity to show just how special our sport is. We’re finally going to get the attention here in the United States that will spread around the world.”

The question looming over Oregon ‘22 what does the sport, particularly World Athletics and the USATF, do with that attention?

This much is clear: the problem isn’t the product. The post-Bolt slump that many in the sport and in the media predicted for track and field after the Jamaican sprinter’s retirement in 2019 didn’t happen.

“This sport likes to hang onto one person forever,” said Ato Boldon, a world champion sprinter who is now an analyst for NBC. “So when Bolt was on his way out, I was in constant eye-roll mode when people said, ‘Oh, my gosh Bolt’s gone, the sport is gonna die. Who’s going to carry the sport?’ And I said then you are insulting the potential futures of Sydney McLaughlin, Noah Lyles, Andre DeGrasse. You’re insulting what they could potentially do because they haven’t gotten their chance yet.

“Let these people grow up.”

Sydney Mclaughlin of the United States after her team won the gold medal in the final of the women's 4 x 400-meter relay at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Sydney Mclaughlin of the United States after her team won the gold medal in the final of the women’s 4 x 400-meter relay at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

McLaughlin, an Olympian in Rio de Janeiro at 17 for the U.S., has blossomed into an Olympic champion with rare grace and talent who has lowered the 400 meter hurdles world record three times in the past 13 months. Lyles, the 2019 World 200 champion, will be the co-star with 18-year-old Florida teenager Erriyon Knighton and Canada’s DeGrasse, the Olympic champion, in the most anticipated showdown of the Worlds –Thursday’s 200 final.

And the sport has never been more popular at the grassroots level.

“Everybody always says the sport of track and field is dying,” said Symmonds, a Worlds silver medalist. “I just think that’s silly. The sport of professional track and field is dying. But the sport of track and field is alive and vibrant and healthy as I’ve ever seen it. It’s incredible.”

Growth at the grass roots

USATF has more than 130,000 members, 3,000 clubs and sanctions 8,000 events a year. By comparison, USA Gymnastics has 90,000 members.

Track and field has been the fastest growing sport at the high school level for more than a decade. It is the most popular girls high school sport in the U.S. with 488,257 participants, according to the most recent study by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Boys track (605,354) is second only to football.

“This is a great opportunity,” said Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympian and Worlds silver medalist at 10,000 meters, now an NBC commentator. “I feel like in the United States almost everybody knows someone or participated in track and field themselves in high school or middle school or whatever it is. It’s a sport that almost anyone can relate to at some level. I think having it here in the United States for the first time ever, people being able to see these amazing athletes on U.S. soil and then not just losing steam after this, continuing to tell these storylines and continuing to draw people in. I think a lot of it is through storytelling and getting people to relate and remember their own track and field days. I think with a lot of hardcore fans we focus a lot of time, but for the casual person who ran the mile in high school, it’s really important to tell these stories and make these athletes human.

“So I’m hoping this is a resurgence for track and field in the United States because we certainly have a fan base, we certainly have people who participated in the sport. There are plenty of people there to make fans.”

Banks was recently reminiscing about competing at Hayward Field as a UCLA triple jumper and recalled Oregon distance running legend Steve Prefontaine and his Duck teammate Mac Wilkens, later the Olympic champion and world record holder in the discus.

“Mac and Pre and all these guys, they were stories,” Banks said. “This is what we’re going to go back to–personalities, stories. Touching the public, letting them get a feel for the sport because right now. It’s like we’re in a bubble. We need to break the bubble and get out.”

How those stories are told – and who tells them and from where – remains, however, a source of debate.

Banks sees parallels between Oregon ‘22 and the U.S. hosting the 1994 World Cup.

“A lot of parallels,”  said Banks, who was a deputy venue director for the World Cup. “Soccer was like a foreign language and those individuals (at FIFA and the organizing committee) knew they had something here. They had the basis of a sport that could blow up here in the United States. They just need to bring attention to it. So when we had the World Cup, FIFA was so smart they put it here in our country because they knew it could grow. They laid the groundwork with youth soccer.”

Banks was chairman of a World Athletics committee that developed a World Plan last year designed to make track and field one of the top two or three sports globally by 2030.

“A road map for how we can grow athletics, or track and field here in the United States, around the world,” Banks said. “And it starts with this World Championships. This is the beginning of a huge shift. We have several things going on that we believe will help grow the sport and grow it in terms of participation, of our people, in terms of our fans and of course in terms of our partnerships and it’s all based on those four tenets.”

The centerpiece of the World Plan is expanding World Athletics Continental tour meets in North and Central America and Caribbean regions, increasing the number of competitions from 15 to 47. The move is designed to increase competitive opportunities for athletes and put the sport in front of fans more frequently. World Athletics is also considering adding a gambling aspect to the meets as another way of attracting fans, Banks said.

The meets will also have increased prize money, Banks said.

“That’s very important to the athlete but it also makes this sport more professional,” Banks said. “The one thing that our sport lacks is a consistent support of athletes. And we can do that. And that’s one of the things I learned from the MLS.

“They knew they needed to pay the athlete a consistent salary so they could be professional athletes. It doesn’t make any sense to try and create professional athletes if the athletes aren’t professionally paid. So there’s a focus from USA Track & Field as well as World Athletics to pay our athletes a wage that is a professional wage.”

Banks was asked what he considered a professional wage.

“In today’s dollars, I’d say a professional wage starts at maybe $80,000 dollars and it just goes up from there,” he said. “Some athletes are making millions. Other athletes are making zero. $80,000 is low in those dollars but at least it gives the athletes something they can live on so they can train and start to compete and travel and do all the things that are necessary so it can be a professional sport. You can’t have a professional sport when your athletes are flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”

Connecting with the 2028 games in Los Angeles

Like World Athletics, USATF, an Indianapolis-based, tax-exempt, non–profit organization with $35 million in annual revenue, has recently created a strategic plan.

“Our road map to 2028,” Siegel said.

USATF’s plan also features more meets on the way to the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

The organization’s Journey To Gold series will feature televised meets from four or five markets during a four-to-eight week window and, according to Siegel, will be “on par with the Diamond League,” track’s premier meet circuit.

“So we can get people accustomed to the fact that our sport is not just an every four years sport,” Siegel said, “which a lot of people think of it that way.”

Journey To Gold meets will also feature “community engagement mass run, festival atmosphere, (and) youth and masters (events) sprinkled into broadcast meet.”

Journey To Gold meets will also feature minimum prize money standards.

“Thousands of dollars,” Siegel said.

Many in the sport, however, remain skeptical.

“All of these things are the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a catastrophically broken leg,” Michael Johnson, the Olympic champion sprinter who is now a BBC commentator, said of the World Athletics and USATF plans.

“That’s what the sport has been doing forever – just hoping for these things and these guys know it and that’s ridiculous,” Johnson continued.”If you want rivalries and rivalries are great for the sport, create a situation where you have rivalries. But if you go out and say we’re going to create a whole nother Continental tour with a whole bunch of more meets then you’re going to have more opportunities to have athletes not compete against each other.

“So which problem are you trying to solve? Willie is saying if we have more meets then that’s more opportunities for athletes to compete, but yeah where’s the money going to come from? If there’s hardly any money there and those athletes aren’t, yeah they have the opportunity to compete, you’re just going to solve a problem where athletes have more opportunities to compete but they’re still not making enough money.

“You want the media to do stories, but if the athletes in track and field are making $80,000 a year no media is going to pick that up. Those aren’t professional athletes. When you say professional athletes, you think 10-year contract, $200 million dollars. That’s a professional athlete. I’m not saying that you will ever get there in track but track has to realize you’re not going to get the type of media attention that you’re looking for if your athletes make less than the people who are watching them on television. There is an aspirational part of this where people associate more money, when it comes to sport, more money means better athletes.

“So if more money means better athletes what does less money mean?”

Siegel acknowledges that the crowded American sports landscape presents a major obstacle for professional track and field in this country.

“One of the things that I talk to my colleagues around the world about is that the U.S. market is incredibly desirable but it is very cluttered, it’s crowded with a lot of competing spaces,” Siegel said.. “As you go around Europe or around the world in general the NBA, March Madness, the NFL, Major League Baseball, all of those things aren’t as prominent in the sports landscape globally.

“The first thing that we have to compete with, which is both an obstacle but also an opportunity, is that we have a very cluttered sports landscape. So we have to be strategic with how we position the sport and have it with some consistency and pick some spots.”

Critics complain that USATF and the American sport have too often picked Eugene for major meets instead of trying to get a foothold in markets like New York City or Florida. The last four Olympic Trials, four of the last seven U.S. Championships have been held in Eugene, eight of the last 10 NCAA Outdoor meets. Tracktown this year has already hosted the Pac-12, NCAA and U.S. Championships as well as the Pre Classic.

The reliance on Tracktown is as much about Nike’s influence in the sport as it is Eugene’s history of turning out large crowds.

The company was co-founded by Phil Knight, a former Oregon middle distance runner, and iconic Duck coach Bill Bowerman.

Nike is USA Track & Field’s leading corporate sponsor, the parties agreeing to a $400-million 23-year deal in 2014. The shoe company is also the sponsor of the Prefontaine Classic, the only U.S. stop on the Diamond League.

“Nike is the one who shovels $20 million a year into the USATF coffers but maybe that’s not the best thing for the sport,” Symmonds said. “On the professional side maybe it’s not the most healthy relationship that USATF has created for itself.

“They’re addicted to the heroin drip that is the Nike money. And instead of being forced to go out and reinvent the sport of track and field or go out and create new things. They’re very content to just sit there and take their $20 million and let professional track and field slowly die.”

The Continental tour will have a stop in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, Banks said. USATF has already committed to a Journey To Gold stop in the Los Angeles area.

“Obviously LA will be an important market,” Siegel said.

Many problems to solve

But others like Johnson maintain professional track won’t make it big on Broadway or in Hollywood.

“The sport can’t survive in a big market like Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago or New York. It’s not possible,” Johnson said. “Ultimately I would like to see it get there. But given the structure we have right now, this is not a build it and they will come. It’s not like if you just have a meet in Los Angeles or one of these big cities and you keep doing what you’re doing, which is try to attract people to a sport they’re not interested in, they’re not interested in coming. I would love to see that at some point. But first you have to fix the sport itself and make it a truly professional sport in the markets that do support it and then you start expanding it out to other places. You go and put it, even a World Championships, in a big city like Los Angeles or New York it’s absolutely going to fail.

“So my perspective and I think this is the problem is everyone is approaching this from hey, we have to fix this problem. It’s like a rubik’s cube. You might make this side look really nice and pretty now. ‘ We have to compete’ and not having taken into consideration at all well what does that do on the other side of the equation.

“You have to fix this thing holistically. So yes you need rivalries, yes you need athletes to be true professionals, you need the media to recognize them as true professionals. And a lot of this comes back to, in my opinion, not more competition, more athletes. It’s fewer competitions, fewer athletes. There’s too much going on in this sport with too many races, too many competitions, too many athletes, too many events. It’s just too much of everything and you can’t spread that around. It’s impossible.”

The biggest problem facing professional track in the U.S. is that the people trying to solve the problems are accountable to too many groups within their organizations.

“We’re cradle to the grave,” Siegel acknowledged.. “We’re grassroots from youth all the way up to Masters as a lifestyle sport.

Johnson was asked what he would do if he was Coe?

“I wouldn’t be Seb. I wouldn’t be Max,” Johnson said. “These are heads of federations. I would look to someone in private industry and say take this with our blessing and with our support and take it and make it a true professional sport. That way you can decide what are the events people really want to watch? Because if we the federation have to do it we have to have the shot put, we have to have the javelin, have to have the 10,000 meters, we have to have the race walk. Regardless of whether a lot of people want to watch those things, we have to have them. We have to have this country. We have to have that country. We have to spread everything around. We have to have this incredibly democratic process. Which is great for World Championships, great for the Olympics but when you’re trying to professionalize this sport you have to operate as a business. Federations are not businesses. They cannot do it. They have to focus on inclusivity, more athletes, more, more of everything except more money and they try and spread that around and it doesn’t work.

“It’s not too broken to fix. I think the problem is the people who are trying to fix it, bless ’em, they are not equipped to fix it. Again federations can’t run businesses. A professional sport is a business and every other sport except for Olympic sports. If you say let’s give up the professional part of it, let’s just be an Olympic sport, or let’s just be an amateur sport, there are enough people who will continue to do it because they love it. But you can’t have one foot in one and one foot in the other. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t ever worked. They’ve been trying to make it work forever and it doesn’t.”

Symmonds favors a model similar to golf.

“If USATF’s job is to grow the sport, they’ve done a fairly decent job, and I don’t give USATF very much credit, but they have done a pretty good job on the grassroots, road racing, high school level,” he said. “What they’ve done an absolutely abysmal job is on the professional level and they won’t let go of it. And that’s the problem if they would let go of it and allow something like the PGA and USGA.

“USGA handles the rules, grassroots. But PGA is there for professional tour.

“The problem is we’re asking the USATF, an NGO or a non-profit. We’re asking them to be a professional entity. It’s so absurd.”

The true impact of the Worlds, whether the opportunity of Oregon ‘22 was capitalized on or squandered, won’t be known for years.

“It’s not like the sport is going to pass the NFL, but we have to continue to give young American kids viable options to the main sports that sort of dominate the landscape,” Boldon said. “It means therefore the results of whether it’s been a good Worlds will not all be immediate. If it’s well attended, if it’s an exciting Worlds and there are a lot of world records and a lot of buzz that’s good.

“But if in 15 years…”

Boldon lost his train of thought as he recalled watching his first Worlds in 1991 and the epic showdown between Mike Powell and Carl Lewis in the long jump in which Powell broke Bob Beamon’s 23-year-old world record, the sport’s most revered global standard.

“That was a powerful thing for me,” Boldon continued. “Mike Powell versus Carl Lewis. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do and I wasn’t even a jumper. That’s what I think the ultimate success of Eugene could be, should be, and hopefully will be.”

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