Track & Field at a Crossroads
Another Olympic year is upon us and the sport of track & field will be showcasing its star athletes. However, in recent summer games the sport of track & field has lost its luster. Basketball, gymnastics, and swimming have become more popular spectator sports during the past few Olympics. While running is the most popular sport in the world, why isn’t there more support for track & field among runners?
As a college coach, I figure I have some insights and -- regretfully -- contribute to track & field’s apparent decline. The sport continues to have steady growth. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations*, track & field remains No. 2 among boys and girls programs. It is also No. 2 among boys and No. 1 among girls high school sports in participation numbers.
At the college level, there are almost twice as many track & field programs in the state of Georgia these days than when I began coaching 20 years ago. At the NCAA Division II level, we expanded our field sizes for indoor and outdoor championships more than four years ago. The Peach Belt Conference – the league Clayton State competes in – just completed its fourth outdoor championship in April.
Despite the growth in high school and college teams and overall participation, track & field has become more cumbersome and less interesting for spectators. What use to be one- and two-day meets have grown into two- and three-day marathons! When poor meet management occurs, the experience is dreadful.
Track is less of a team sport these days and more of an individual thing. Individual stars have always dominated, but track & field does not have a bunch of flashy personalities to draw attention to the sport or create controversy. Because of the nature of the sport, performance is paramount so “drama queens” don’t survive. It may be one of the last sports that brings a blue collar mentality to the competition site. No Apollo Creed personalities. No flash, just the dash!
The sport has not been helped with several of its prominent stars lose their credibility because they got caught using performance enhancing drugs. There just does not seem to be the star quality appeal to keep track fans interested.
Outside the Olympic years, the sport sort of goes dormant as far as media attention. With the expansion of cable television, I’ve been disappointed that someone has not come up with a channel that is all about running. Baseball, basketball, football, and golf have their channels. Why not running?
Track & field has not changed with the times to attract new fans. Those who actually enjoy running and competed in track & field tend to lose interest once they finish their time in the sport.
This month is prime time for high school and college track & field with state and national championships being contested. Yet the fan and spectator support isn’t as strong as it once was. We in track & field do not put as much value on the sport to give it the respect it deserves. One can attend many college meets for free most of the time. What a bargain!
In its simplest form, track & field is still about who can run the fastest, jump the highest or farthest, and throw the farthest. Perhaps these days with technology, the sport is too simple and not complicated enough for drawing new fans.
In general, sports is about trials and tribulations; the personal struggles to overcome obstacles. It is about the “David & Goliath” match-ups. Overcoming incredible odds to pull off the upset. Track & field still has all of that and more. We as coaches, athletes, and fans need to do a better job in supporting and sharing the sport with the casual observers who only take notice once every four years.