A CROWD PLEASER
This is an article from the June 8, 1998 issue
The leaders of American track and field spend lots of time
wringing their hands over how to reestablish their sport in the
public consciousness--and well they should. Craig Masback, USA
Track & Field's CEO, was stunned to find during visits to
potential sponsors that track has drifted so far off the radar
screen that some corporations view the sport as a "new"
opportunity, like snowboarding. One group of suits gave Masback
a questionnaire that asked, "How long has your sport been in the
Olympic Games?" Numb, Masback wrote, "Since 776 B.C."
In his 10 months on the job, Masback has drawn up a marketing
plan for track and field that emphasizes its already high level
of youth participation as well as the sport's rich heritage. The
plan also calls for streamlining competitions and building a
domestic meet circuit that brings the best athletes together.
For a model, how about Sunday's Prefontaine Classic, an
international Grand Prix meet contested before a thundering
crowd at Oregon's Hayward Field? The Pre jammed a terrific meet
into less than 2 1/2 hours of nonstop action that included five
1998 world bests and showcased some of the top performers on the
At 1:50 (PDT) on Sunday afternoon, world champion Maurice Greene
ran a wind-aided 9.79 seconds to beat training partner Ato
Boldon in the 100 meters. Even after all the statistical voodoo,
that time stands as one of the fastest 100s ever. (Carl Lewis
once ran a 9.79, but the wind was blowing nearly twice as hard;
the record is Donovan Bailey's 9.84 from '96.) Less than three
minutes later, Marion Jones won the long jump with a 23'11 3/4"
leap, 7 3/4 inches off the world record in only her sixth major
long jump competition. Forty minutes after that, Greene roasted
Michael Johnson in the 200, after which Boldon woofed, "I knew
Michael was in deep trouble here." Daniel Komen of Kenya closed
the meet with a 3:50.95 mile; he was one of 11 men under four
minutes. It was a great show by any standard.
Such a production requires cooperation and creativity. Meet
director Tom Jordan offered a $70,000 bonus for a world record
in the 100 (which he insured with a $10,000 premium) to induce
Boldon to participate. (Greene's Nike contract provided his
incentive.) Kim McDonald, agent for many of the Kenyans, didn't
balk when Burundi's Venuste Niyongabo was added to the mile,
creating competition for Komen.
More could be done to promote the sport's revival. Field
athletes must help shorten their events by taking fewer throws,
jumps and vaults. TV must be smart in its coverage. (On Sunday
CBS offered an "inside" nugget on a marathon mark set in April,
which is insulting.) "Track fans are generally patient and
intelligent," says Lance Deal, the top American in the hammer.
"I'm not sure our sport will ever appeal to the mainstream,
hard-core sports fan. But I'm willing to compromise to try."
American distance running is an easy target for jokes, like the
President's sex life or Dennis Rodman's wardrobe. Just pick a
setup--aside from the stray marathon, no U.S. Olympic medals at
distances above 800 meters since 1964, Africans smashing world
records while Yanks fall further behind--and deliver the punch
line. Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune proposed this spring
that to inspire interest in track and field in the U.S., support
be cut back for races beyond 400 meters. Among U.S. distance
runners of the post-Alberto Salazar era, only Bob Kennedy has
stayed remotely competitive, and his U.S. 5,000-meter mark of
12:58.21 (set in 1996) is nearly 20 seconds off Komen's world
Kennedy has long maintained that the Kenyans and Ethiopians go
fast because they train hard, not because they grew up running
12 miles to school, and that Americans hoping to compete must do
the same. There are signs that two Stanford freshmen, Gabe
Jennings and Jonathon Riley, are among a generation (which
includes Adam Goucher of Colorado and Seneca Lassiter of
Arkansas) prepared to do just that, as well as anything else
necessary to succeed
"There was a time in the U.S. when kids said, 'Why bother going
to [international] meets? I'm just going to get my butt
kicked,'" says Vin Lananna, Stanford's track and cross-country
coach. "I think that's passed. I see some very bright lights out
there, and they aren't afraid to run against anybody."
A year ago Jennings and Riley promised that one of them would
become the first schoolboy in 31 years to run a sub-four-minute
mile. Neither made it, but both have persevered and had terrific
freshman seasons. Riley was 23rd (and the top American-born
freshman) in the NCAA cross-country meet, helping Stanford win
the team title. He has run 13:56 for 5,000 meters and 9:03 for
the steeplechase. Jennings has run 13:57 for 5,000 and 1:47.98
for 800, and in April got his sub-four, finishing third in
Jennings has the blind passion of a top distance runner. Last
summer, while attending a running camp and cranking out heavy
mileage every morning, he entered the mile in an evening
all-comers' meet and nearly broke four minutes. He then entered
the triple jump--for fun. He begged Lananna to let him run in
the Prefontaine, despite knowing that he needed to rest for this
weekend's NCAA meet. "I didn't even ask what he wanted to do at
Pre," says Lananna. "Probably pole-vault." (Jennings took his
coach's advice and rested instead.)
This spirit is perhaps to be expected from a kid raised in a
house without indoor plumbing or electricity in the northern
California village of Forks of Salmon. Jennings's folks taught
in a one-room schoolhouse, and, yes, he ran to school. If that's
not qualification enough, his birthday is Jan. 25, same as Steve
Led by nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis (who bowed out
last fall), one of the most decorated generations of U.S. track
and field athletes is moving toward retirement. Below, a look at
the biggest stars and who's next in line.
Resume: Four Olympic golds, four world championships in
heptathlon and long jump; greatest U.S. women's track and field
Age, status: 36, likely to make farewell appearance in St. Louis
on July 25.
Sydney prospects: None.
Possible successor: As multievent superstar, nobody. As long
jumper and queen of U.S. track and field, Marion Jones.
Resume: World-record holder in long jump. Two-time Olympic
silver medalist, six-time national champ, longtime rival of
Age, status: 34, expected to retire any day.
Sydney prospects: None, but if Lewis un-retires, expect Powell
to follow suit.
Possible successor: There is no long jump successor to Lewis, so
there's none to Powell.
Resume: Olympic decathlon gold medalist in '96 and world-record
holder. Sometime host of ESPN aerobics show.
Age, status: 32 on July 18, expected to compete in first
decathlon in nearly two years at the Goodwill Games.
Sydney prospects: Could be there if he feels like working for
it. Big if.
Possible successor: Steve Fritz, 30, was fourth in '96 Games,
but 28-year-old Chris Huffins has greater potential. Neither is
likely to match O'Brien's numbers.
Resume: Double gold in '96, world-record holder
in 200 meters with ungodly 19.32.
Age, status: 30, healthy after injury-riddled '97, but no longer Superman.
Sydney prospects: Count on it, but don't expect a walkover.
Possible successor: Hasn't been born.
Resume: Second-fastest U.S. woman ever at 200 meters (21.72,
behind Florence Griffith-Joyner's 21.34 and 21.56), two
individual Olympic medals.
Age, status: 33 next week, often injured since mid-'96.
Sydney prospects: Even if healthy, making the team won't be easy.
Possible successor: All together--Marion Jones.
Resume: Two-time Olympic gold medalist at 100 meters, two-time
world champion in 100 hurdles. Coolest, and longest, fingernails
in the sport.
Age, status: 31, competing, but--as always in non-Olympic
Sydney prospects: Should make a last run, but not for gold in
Likely successor: Jones, who'll win the 100, is way faster and
nine years younger.
MARY SLANEY (left)
Resume: Still the best U.S. women's middle distance runner.
Holds three U.S. records.
Age, status: 40 on Aug. 4. Says she's in the best shape of her
life and proved it by winning the 5,000 on Sunday in Eugene.
Sydney prospects: Longs for that elusive Olympic medal; don't
count her out.
Possible successor: Jearl Miles-Clark, 31, broke her 800-meter
U.S. record. Amy Rudolph, 24, owns the 5,000 mark. But across
this range for 27 years? Please!