The track and field calendar is a shambles, ugh

Mike Rodgers ran the 100 meters in 9.89 seconds in the preliminary rounds of the U.S. track and field national championships Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

It was the fastest 100 meters anywhere in the world so far in 2018.

This raises several questions.

Why is Rodgers running that fast in — the prelims? 

Why, moreover, is a 33-year-old Mike Rodgers running in the 9.8s again after a 2017 that saw him run a best 10-flat and a 9.97 in 2016?

 Mike Rodgers running Thursday in Des Moines at the US championships // Getty Images

Mike Rodgers running Thursday in Des Moines at the US championships // Getty Images

Rodgers ran 9.92 in Prague on June 4. And — here is the inexplicable thing about professional track and field — it has to be asked: why he is running that fast in 2018? For what reason?

Pride gets no one paid. Respect is awesome, and 9.89 is respectfully quick. But, again, track is a professional sport. 

And this is what in track circles is called an “off-year.” There’s no Olympics, no world championships. 

For Mike Rodgers to sustain 9.89, or quicker, for a full year — longer, really — is asking a whole damn lot. 

This is what is fundamentally wrong with track and field.

What major sport goes an entire year — in practice, meaning more than two full years — without a major championship? 

Justin Gatlin beat Usain Bolt on Aug. 5, 2017, in the 100 meters at London’s Olympic Stadium. The next world championships start Sept. 28, 2019, in Doha, Qatar.

That’s 25, almost 26, months.

That is major buzzkill.

That is fankill.

For comparison: the 2017 world swim championships were held in Budapest and there’s no long-course 2018 world championships. That is, in a 50-meter pool. But — there will be a short-course championships, meaning 25-meter racing, in December in China. 

One of the biggest upcoming stars in swimming is an American named Caeleb Dressel. He is huge in short-course swimming as well as in the big pool. 

Seb Coe, the president of track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF, recognizes the problem. Track and field’s calendar must be fixed. There is no regular, repeatable rhythm for fans to follow. 

Without a season that builds to a predictable championship, here’s the riddle: what reason is there for fans to emotionally invest in the sport, or its athletes?

Compare:

The best moment in track and field in 2018 came at the NCAA championships in rainy Eugene, Oregon, when the University of Southern California’s Kendall Ellis, in fifth place going into the anchor leg of the women’s 4x400 relay, came all the way back to edge Purdue’s Jahneya Mitchell at the line. 

The relay gave USC the 2018 national championship.

To win the title, USC needed the relay to pass Georgia, which didn’t have a team in the 4x4.

There’s a rhythm and predictability to the NCAA calendar. Too, there are teams that fans identify with and know who to root for. 

Unless you subscribe to (newly electronic only) Track & Field News or the statistics goldmine tilastopaja.org or are a member of various Facebook track and field groupie groups, you most likely would have a severely difficult time naming any of the guys who ran Thursday night in any of the heats with Rodgers.

You could win a bar bet in a lot of bars by knowing who — before that 9.89 — had run the year’s fastest 100. (Zharnel Hughes, Britain, 9.91, in Kingston, Jamaica, on June 9.) That is, if the bartender didn’t throw you out on your ass for being such a freak  — why are you asking about track and field when the only guy we’ve ever heard of is that Bolt dude?

In the meantime, there’s little to no reason for some of the biggest names in U.S. track and field — including Gatlin, Allyson Felix and a host of others — to run at this week’s U.S. meet because there’s no follow-up world championship later this summer.

There is a new meet, in London, in mid-July, called the World Cup. 

But clearly the IAAF has not made it worthwhile — yet, in its first iteration — for USA Track & Field to sell its marquee athletes on the value of qualifying for the World Cup via the U.S. nationals. 

There’s a two-day meet in September called the Continental Cup, in the Czech Republic.

Track geeks know, and appreciate, the merits of the Continental Cup, in which athletes compete for one of four continents — Asia, Europe, Africa or the Americas. Each team will feature a track and field legend as an honorary captain; Mike Powell, the world-record holder in the long jump, is the Americas captain. 

And so on.

All well and good, but track geeks are already a captive audience.

And to say that captive audience is, comparatively speaking, a niche group would be stating the obvious. 

Let’s say you’re not a track geek. Let’s say you’re Average Sports Fan. 

Mike Rodgers got five (technically, four) paragraphs in the New York Times’ online versions, via Reuters and one of track and field’s great longtime journalists, Gene Cherry. The story of Rodgers’ world-best time was dwarfed by numerous accounts detailing the NBA Draft and the FIFA World Cup, even a feature on Friday’s NHL Draft. 

Who wants to argue (in this context) with the Times’ news judgment?

The Continental Cup is Sept. 8-9. 

Just for starters: Kicking off England’s UEFA Nation’s League campaign, Spain comes to Wembley Stadium in London on the 8th. The last time that Spain, winners of the 2010 World Cup, went to Wembley was in 2016; England had Spain down by two goals only to see the game end in a 2-2 tie. 

In New York, the U.S. Open tennis tournament’s women’s final will be played on the 8th, the men’s on the 9th. Most of the games of Week One of the NFL season will be played on the 9th.

What do you know? UEFA has created a league of sorts, replacing the unloved friendly, the idea being to create a path toward qualifying for, at the least, the 2020 European Championship.

The Open is, of course, the fourth of four Grand Slams every year. They’re known. They’re calendar fixtures.

The first week of the NFL season builds toward February and the Super Bowl.

Track and field’s challenge — make no mistake — is to compete with all of that.

There’s a lot that could be debated about the way the NCAA calendar feeds into the championship in Eugene. But at least that championship, and the build-up, is an annual thing.

Like, that’s the logical start. It doesn’t take even 9.89 seconds to figure that out. Right?