In life, you have to capitalize on momentum and opportunity. Think of it like running a relay in track and field. It’s a lot easier to succeed when you have a running start.
Track and field is at such a moment, coming out of the 2017 IAAF world championships in London, which featured sell-out crowds at Olympic Stadium, breakthrough performances by the British relay teams and, as well, a U.S. team that won a record 30 medals, including a historic 1-2 finish in the women’s steeplechase that went viral on social media.
With that as backdrop, British Athletics and USA Track & Field on Wednesday announced a one-night, your team against my team throw-down next summer, back at Olympic Stadium.
Organizers are calling it “The Meet.”
When: July 21.
What and how: nine events — including, for sure, relays — and, most important, two hours.
Again, two hours: a show deliberately designed to be compact, fan-friendly and, as a USATF release put it, “to appeal to new audiences,” which is code for — in particular — a young, urban crowd.
“This is the head-to-head in world athletics,” Adam Gemili, who ran the second leg of the winning British 4x1 relay last Saturday night, said in a statement.
“We have a great sporting rivalry with the USA team and we look forward to seeing which nation comes out strongest at The Meet next summer. The event is all about power, speed and excitement. I can’t wait.”
Allyson Felix, who won her 16th world championship medal Sunday in the women’s 4x400 relay, said:
“Bringing team competition back to the London Stadium will be special. There is nowhere like it in the world for track and field, and it has been the site of some memorable Team USATF performances.
“We are really looking forward to The Meet.”
Full details remain to be worked out, including The Meet’s specific format and team rosters. Those are expected early next year.
Especially for American consumers, the notion of a team competition makes eminent sense.
There’s golf’s Ryder Cup. The Davis Cup in tennis.
Since 2003, swimming has seen what’s called a “Duel in the Pool,” at first pitting the U.S. against Australia, since 2009 an all-star European team.
Track and field history is of course writ large with exactly this sort of thing, in particular the U.S. v. U.S.S.R. meets from 1958-1985, a sports icon of the Cold War years.
One of the signature elements of the Penn Relays each April at Franklin Field: U.S. v. the World.
It’s not much of a stretch to see how that helped prompt the IAAF to develop the World Relays, which is now an every-other-year event in the Bahamas.
In principle, team competitions are great. To be obvious, to maximize the odds for success, when innovating you just have to make sure you have the right team. This was the problem with team tennis. It’s the challenge facing team track in the United States.
Again, just being obvious: you are way better off down the line if, for instance, you fill Olympic Stadium with 60,000 fans to watch top talent than otherwise -- meaning "teams" that make no intuitive or emotional sense, meets that carry that high school vibe and attendance, even in a purported track hotbed like Portland, Oregon of (depending who's counting) "a few hundred fans" or an estimated 1,300.
People vote with their pocketbooks, their feet, however you want to describe it.
To stage a mid-summer dual meet back at Olympic Stadium … when leading U.S. athletes would be in Europe, anyway, because it’s Diamond League season … and draw a packed house because British fans have proven, both at the 2012 Olympics and again at the 2017 championships that they will jam that venue … could and should be nothing short of a potential game-changer as track and field, leaning in particular on story-telling in social media, moves to re-brand itself as a sport with wow factor … particularly with young people.
Back to Gemili’s formula: power, speed, excitement.
What, looking ahead to next July, are the challenges?
First and foremost, marketing. Making it an event. Drawing the target audience.
Here, too, a key challenge:
— While the Americans won 30 medals, the Brits won six. Distance standout Mo Farah won two. The other four came in relays: men’s 4x1 gold, men’s 4x4 bronze, women’s 4x1 and 4x4 silver. That’s it. Farah has said he is done with track racing and plans to move to the roads; he would seem hugely unlikely to run in The Meet. The upside for UK Athletics, which USATF receives significant government funding, is that it has every incentive to get better, and what better way than to race the best?
For true track and field geeks:
In the placing table, scoring events 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 for places one through eight, considered the best indicator of true team strength, the U.S. finished with 272 points. Then came Kenya, 124. Then Britain, 105. (Then, Poland, 86, and China, 81, with 66 nations scoring points.) So matching the United States and Britain next July is, genuinely, a competitive thing.
The trick will be formatting the two hours. In the relays, no question the Brits can take it to the Americans. In other events?
Meanwhile, The Meet would seem likely to achieve other significant objectives as well:
— The stadium’s chief tenant is now the West Ham soccer team. But keeping the track was a major political focus in the run-up to the London Games of then-2012 chief Seb Coe, now IAAF president. Every time the track gets used for a major event, it’s good for UK Athletics and, by extension, Coe and those who supported his fight to keep the track.
In turn, that’s good for the IAAF and for track and field.
— A considerable challenge with the 2018 international track and field calendar: there is no major outdoor meet, only a world indoor championships, set for early March in Birmingham, England. So, as Gemili pointed out, The Meet can be more than a meet — it can be, if done right, a happening.
— Finally, in contrast to a slew of disasters at recent worlds and Olympics, the U.S. teams got the stick around during the 2017 championships without a hitch. Credit to new relays coach Orin Richburg. The Meet means more high-level relay practice. All such practice, pointing toward the 2019 worlds and, even more, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, can only be a good thing — both for the U.S. and, of course, British teams.
" 'The Meet is a great idea and will be a fantastic event for athletics fans, especially as it's at the London Stadium, which is an amazing venue and has given me so many memories over the years," Mo Farah, the distance standout, said in a statement.
Farah, of course, has announced his intent to move to marathon racing. Given the likely format of The Meet, he would in any event seem to be a spectator. As one of the faces of British track and field, he was nonetheless asked for a few words and also said, "I think the UK has the best athletic fans in the world and I have no doubt they will be there to cheer the British Athletics team on when they compete against Team USATF.
"It is going to be awesome."