LONDON — Somewhere, some 8- or 9- or 10-year-old kid is in her or his backyard, throwing or running or jumping and dreaming big dreams about maybe someday being, say, Allyson Felix, lithe and elegant, or Tianna Bartoletta, fast and focused, or maybe Christian Taylor or Ryan Crouser, guys who produce when the spotlight is brightest.
Never, perhaps, has track and field found itself at such an intriguing intersection, indeed one suddenly filled with potential.
There are the kids, and their dreams. There is the sport, with its many documented woes. There is also, genuinely, because of the award of the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics, opportunity, and particularly in the United States.
Track and field, lord knows, has in recent years endured its grim moments. Indeed, the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, spent a huge chunk of Thursday afternoon at its congress debating what to do about the Russians, as if the Russians were the only ones who had ever encountered a performance-enhancing substance. Ha.
Perhaps it is track and field’s destiny to continue to wallow in the swamp.
Then again, there are glimmers here — to reiterate, glimmers — that with real leadership in place and in accord with the International Olympic Committee’s double award of the Summer Games for 2024 and 2028 to Paris and Los Angeles, in particular the move to LA in 2028, the sport might yet in the 21st century jump-start its way back into global relevance.
Let’s be clear.
Track and field has reach.
What it needs is relevance — of the sort, say, the NBA, NFL or English Premier League soccer enjoy.
The critic says: seriously? Impossible.
The optimist says: why not?
The skeptic can find a thousand, a million, a jillion reasons to review the track and field prospectus and turn instant pessimist.
All have been covered in detail, and for many years. A list would start with corruption, doping, staid presentation, no stars other than one guy from Jamaica, lack of rivalries, too much agent control of top athletes, weird nationality switches and go from there.
Moreover, Usain Bolt says he’s done after these London 2017 worlds. He is, practically speaking, the one name in the sport right now. Don’t believe it? Ask someone randomly to name someone in track and field. Odds are the names that will turn up will be a) Bolt, b) Carl Lewis or c) Michael Johnson. Names b) and c) have not put on spikes and run competitively in many years.
Out on the horizon, there is also, to be candid, the multi-layered challenge of the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar.
The optimist would acknowledge all of that. Absolutely. Then, though:
This year, and in particular the 2017 London championships, will mark the start of an arc stretching to Los Angeles and 2028.
Just a few weeks ago, the IAAF world under-18 championships played to capacity crowds — 60,000 people — at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi.
This run in London will similarly draw massive interest; organizers said they have sold some 700,00 tickets. The atmosphere promises to evoke the huge crowds at the Olympics five years ago.
Those 2012 Games, though, were not the turn-around. Lamine Diack of Senegal was still IAAF president.
The optimist would say that the turn began in earnest with Coe’s election two years ago, after 16 years of presidential rule by Diack, who treated the IAAF like a fiefdom, a strategy he had learned from the president before him, Primo Nebiolo of Italy.
Diack now stands accused of criminal conspiracy by French law enforcement in connection with a scheme to cover up Russian doping. The French authorities, in concert with other officials, want to know what else he, and his circle, knew. The revelations could be considerable, both at the IAAF and the IOC.
The fallout from the Russian doping scandal has been, in a word, explosive.
Coe’s approach in dealing with it, as summed up in a piece written by one of his former aides and published Thursday in the Olympic newsletter Sport Intern: “no retreat, no surrender,” an apt riff on a Bruce Springsteen song.
Whether one agrees or not with the IAAF move to ban the Russians as a whole — the assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to keep the ban in place — it was nonetheless extraordinary to hear the new head of the Russian track and field federation, Dmitry Shlyakhtin, stand up in the hall to apologize.
Consider Russian history. Consider the pride of the Russian people. Consider what it took from Shlyakhtin — and, more, the leadership and unrelenting pressure and guidance from Coe in moving the Russians toward reinstatement — to hear the Russian federation president say these words:
“Truly speaking, when I immersed [myself] into the situation that developed in recent years in Russian [track and field], I was shocked: the use of doping by athletes, the concealment of doping test results, corruption and extortion of the former leadership of [the national federation] and the IAAF.
“Taking all this into account, the decision of the IAAF council on the suspension of our federation from the IAAF membership was probably a forced measure,” meaning appropriate.
“Suspension of the Russian athletes from all international competitions was a harsh decision, but we accepted it, as we understood the inevitability of such a step and the need to [put a] stop to doping and corruption.
“I would like to apologize to all athletes who had gold and silver medals snatched from them.
“This will never happen again.”
During the Diack years, IAAF governance day-to-day was under the control of someone whose title was “director general.” Essentially, though, and everyone knew this, Diack was in control.
Coe appropriately updated matters to be more in line with corporate best practice. Now the person in charge is a chief executive officer. Olivier Gers got the job after a six-month search that drew 200 candidates; he has more than 20 years of commercial, marketing and media experience. Gers is French; crucially, he spent 15 years in business in the United States.
Understand this: whatever one’s political views, the United States is the key market in the world, the primary — if not only — one sponsors truly covet. With respect, if California were a nation, its GDP would rank No. 6 in the globe; France would be 7.
Unless and until track and field gets back to a place of prominence in the United States, it is destined to remain on the margins. That is fact.
Track has a huge window right now in the United States. Part of it is leadership. Part of it is timing. Part of it is circumstantial.
When you take part in track and field, you are not getting hit in the head. The research about the effects of CTE is still in its early years and wholly inconclusive. But this much is clear: if you have to choose between putting on a football helmet and running routes as a wide receiver, or putting on spikes and running sprints or laps, which — as a parent — would you rather your kid choose?
The issue is not getting kids to take part in track and field in high school and even college. They already do that, and in huge numbers. It’s making it attractive enough — culturally and financially — to make it as a track and field pro.
There’s no magic wand and this is going to take time. Because it has taken time to get where things stand now.
Those stuck in the past, meantime, similarly don’t understand how USA Track & Field, under the leadership of chief executive Max Siegel and chief operating officer Renee Washington, is moving matters forward.
Siegel, since taking over in 2012, has negotiated a number of major sponsorships; USATF’s annual budget has grown from $17 million in 2011 to $36.95 million this year.
The 2021 world championships will take place in Eugene, at to-be-remodeled Hayward Field, arguably the sport’s spiritual home in the United States. Hayward played host to the IAAF world juniors in 2014 and the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008, 2012 and 2016; Portland, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north, staged the 2016 IAAF world indoors. The NCAA championships have been at Hayward for years and will be for years to come.
In June, meanwhile, USATF opted to award the 2020 Trials to Mt. SAC, in LA. The campus there has space enough for organizers to make the Trials more than just a track meet. It could and should be a — happening.
Further, track and field can — should — be part of what is going to be an amazing few years in Los Angeles.
Too often, track people tend to think of track in a silo. The time has come to think of track as a part — a big part — of all that is going to be happening in LA, pointing toward 2028 and the Olympics. Just sports-wise:
2022: Super Bowl
2024: NCAA men’s Final Four (probably)
2026: soccer World Cup (probably)
An IAAF worlds in 2021 in Eugene — OK, why not back in LA in 2027?
As for 2028 and those kids:
“I think the Olympics has the power to really change people,” Felix said Thursday as part of a news conference attended by key members of the U.S. team.
Back at the same London stadium where in 2012 she won gold in the 200 meters and in two relays — at these worlds she will run the 400 — Felix added, "To be able to bring the Games back to the States and to know that children will be exposed to the Games and will be exposed to [track and field] — it’s a really special thing.”
Jenny Simpson, who in Rio last year became the first American ever to win an Olympic medal, a bronze, in the women’s 1500 meters, said, “If you made it this far, you very likely started when you were really young, and you very likely looked at a team like the U.S. Olympic team, and saw someone who looked like you that was excelling and wanted to be them.”
Echoed Christian Coleman, who at 9.82 has the fastest time in 2017 in the men’s 100 meters, “For me, growing up in the United States and being a track athlete, competing in the Olympics — that’s every little kid’s dream.”
Coleman is just 21. In 2028, he might — might — still be running. After all, Justin Gatlin, who like Coleman went to college at Tennessee, is running here to challenge Bolt, and Gatlin is 35.
“To compete in the Olympics in the United States, that’s a lot of pride,” Coleman said, adding, “I”m looking forward to it.”
Simpson also said, “It’s unbelievable to think that sitting up at these tables that we are those role models for someone young in the United States and [to have] the opportunity through the Olympics to be that role model at a world level.”
Bartoletta, the Rio 2016 long jump gold medalist, is the author of a new e-book, “Why You’re not a Track Star,” devoted to “all of us on the roller coaster of work, school, love and life, who never quit but come back stronger, faster and smarter than before, every time, without fail.”
She said Thursday that she had been getting a “ton of emails” since the LA28 announcement: “I just like the way it feels in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. Almost how it feels before Christmas. Everyone is a little more polite. Life is a little more exciting, willing to work together.
“At such a crisis time in our country, I think that’s a needed thing to look forward to, because sport has the power to bring people of all demographics, of all socioeconomic classes, together.”
There’s no reason it’s just the kids who have the dreams and work to make them real. The grown-ups can, and should, too. For track and field, the start line of an 11-year project aiming toward 2028 is Friday night, back on the track in London, ready to go with the first final of the championships, the men’s 10,000 meters.
The house will be rocking.