A friend and I were sitting outside at a great little restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday when some dude with his shirt off, two feathers pasted to the back of his head, went riding by on a bicycle, smoke billowing around him. The feathers were black and red. Each was at least two feet long. Not sure what kind of smoke it was but many fine people in Eugene are often, you know, mellow.
Watching the dude go by, I thought, everything seemed pretty much normal in Eugene, which bills itself as Track Town USA.
It's a lovely thought, Eugene as Track Town USA, except -- really -- it's not. There's no place that's Track Town USA. It's a big problem. After this weekend's Prefontaine Classic, before the meet this weekend in New York, before the nationals back in Eugene later this month -- it's time for everyone connected to the sport to recognize that it's time for a thorough re-think.
Track and field is going nowhere fast in the United States.
It can, and must, do better -- especially because USATF, track and field's governing body, is getting $4.4 million annually in grant money from the U.S. Olympic Committee, the most any governing body is getting, and with that kind of cash comes heavy responsibility.
USA Swimming, for comparison, is doing all kinds of clever stuff. At its Olympic Trials, they're plunking down a temporary pool inside a basketball arena. They shoot off fireworks and they play cool music and they have hard bodies and, frankly, it rocks.
Track and field needs to do the same kind of out-of-the-box thinking.
What about holding the track Trials at, say, Cowboys Stadium? Make the event an -- event. If Cowboys Stadium is good enough for the Super Bowl, it's good enough for the Trials. Okay, the 2012 Trials are set for Eugene. Beyond?
In the meantime: Why isn't there a reality-TV show where, for example, a bunch of sprinters are all living in the same house and vying for a shot at the Olympics? Surely some cable network would buy that concept.
At meets, why aren't camera crews on the infield, up close and personal, listening to the athletes grunting and breathing hard and talking smack with each other? Why not at the Trials? The cameras are right there on the floor on the basketball floor during NBA games; they're practically in the huddles during time-outs.
Track needs more personality and it needs to develop strong personalities; it needs sweat and drama dripping in high-def TV.
Frankly, the sport needs a lot more TV and, at the same time, a lot less TV. That is, it needs to be on the air a lot more but in shorter blocks. It needs to be on regularly but for, like, an hour. That's all. An hour. It can be done. You don't need to watch every prelim, every throw, every everything.
Track needs this kind of stuff to move past its doping-soaked past, and the sooner the better. When I got home from Eugene, I asked my youngest daughter, who's 12 -- our three kids are not big sports fans -- to name some basketball players. Shaq and Kobe and other names came right out. Football players? Tom Brady and some others. Track? "Usain Bolt and that Marion lady who went to prison."
That's what track must confront.
Eugene has a dedicated and knowledgeable group of track enthusiasts. Yes, Hayward Field is soaked in history and the University of Oregon program is traditionally one of the best.
That's a subculture even in Eugene.
You don't think so?
Check out the website of the Eugene Register-Guard, purported protector of the faith. Now click through to the sports section. Read the line at the very top of the page, where the newspaper gets to promote how it sees itself. Does it say even the first word about track and field? Nope.
It says, "Oregon Football, breaking sports updates, NCAA and Pac-12 news, prep sports."
Now let's get really real.
I am truly fond of Eugene. I saw it for the first time when I was 17, just three days after I was graduated from high school in southwestern Ohio. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before; it was love at first sight. During college at Northwestern, I came back to Oregon, to do a three-month internship at the newspaper in Bend, the Bulletin. After graduation, I tried to get a job with one of the Oregon newspapers but couldn't get any takers. My loss.
Oregon is a long way from everywhere. Eugene is farther still.
All the things that can make it charming can sometimes make it seem a lot less so when we're talking about the kind of logistics and production values associated with the major-league sports that track is competing against.
Parking around Hayward Field is difficult to begin with (by the way, thank you to Jeff Oliver for helping me out with a pass to the Pre meet -- much appreciated). It was more complicated this past weekend because it was move-out weekend at the university dorms across the street.
Those of us who have had the privilege of covering the Super Bowl had to laugh when the note went out that it would be helpful to bring our own ethernet cable to Hayward Field so as to ensure internet access. Do you really think the writers and broadcasters in Dallas this week covering the NBA Finals are being asked to bring their own cables so they can access the internet?
The New York Times was not in Eugene this weekend. Neither was the Los Angeles Times. These were just some of the other outlets not there, either: the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated.
But then, why would an editor at any of those publications authorize the expenditure of roughly $1500 to go to Eugene?
Sports depend on stars.
Bolt wasn't in Eugene. In fact, unless something changes, he's not due to run anywhere in the United States in 2011.
Tyson Gay wasn't in Eugene. (Instead, he was in Clermont, Florida, where he ran a 9.79 100 meters in a heat in something called the NTC Sprint Series, according to Reuters. He did not compete in the final, according to official results. A YouTube video shows that he ran before a crowd of dozens.)
Tirunesh Dibaba, the distance queen from Ethiopia, appeared in Eugene. But that's all she did. She appeared. She didn't actually run, citing injury.
South Africa's Caster Semenya, the women's 800 meter world champion, made her first American appearance in Eugene, and ran. She finished second in the 800. But she inexplicably didn't show at a pre-meet news conference. After the race, she had to be tracked down to talk to reporters for two minutes and three seconds.
Galen Rupp, the American distance standout, didn't run in the 10k Friday night. He and his coach, Alberto Salazar, cited concerns about allergies -- along with the worry, further spelled out on the USATF Facebook page, that if Rupp ran and had an allergy fit he wouldn't be ready for the nationals.
That decision underscores a major part of the problem.
There are really only two meets this year that matter -- the nationals, June 23-26, and the worlds, Aug. 27-Sept. 4.
The rest has devolved, regrettably, to varying degrees of noise, and everyone knows it.
Why should fans care if the athletes, coaches, shoe companies and other sponsors -- everyone else who has a meaningful stake in the game -- make it plain that an event such as the Pre, allegedly one of the nation's top meets, is something you can skip without any real consequence because you're way more worried about the nationals?
This disconnect has manifested itself at the top leadership levels of the sport. USATF's chief executive's job has now gone unfilled for months amid the departure of Doug Logan. Now there is talk, as reported by my colleague Philip Hersh in his Chicago Tribune blog, that the USATF board wants to pluck the president and chairwoman of that board, Stephanie Hightower, and put her in the CEO job.
That didn't work for the USOC -- see the example of Stephanie Streeter -- and it's going to draw special scrutiny if that's the decision at USATF.
For those who would say, oh, it did work at other, smaller national governing bodies -- track and field is not archery or fencing. Again, USATF gets $4.4 million a year from the USOC. It is the bellwether NGB. The situation is different.
It boggles the mind that USATF seemingly can't get anyone in the entire United States to take this job. Why, a reasonable observer might ask, might that be?
For starters, all the reasons detailed above. Plus, USATF is based in Indianapolis, which on the excitement scale beats out Milwaukee because Indianapolis has the Colts and the Packers play in Green Bay but maybe doesn't out-do New York; the factions within track and field can be notoriously partisan; there are the road runners and there is USATF and it's not clear where the two communities converge, even though it seems incredibly obvious that they should; the federation holds no realistic chance of staging a world championships in the United States in the foreseeable future; and on and on.
Oh, and the other reason USATF seemingly can't get anyone in the United States to take the job is because, after the Logan experience, USATF doesn't seem to be looking too far outside the existing track community.
When it's precisely outside-the-box thinking that's needed.
It all makes you sometimes just want to think to yourself -- what, exactly, is the USOC getting in return for that $4.4 million? Relay teams that keep dropping the baton at the Olympics and world championships and -- what else?