World Relays: at an inflection point

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Journalism is storytelling, and storytelling necessarily involves tension, and from the get-go an irreconcilable tension dictated the way local organizers and track and field’s international governing body approached this fourth edition of the IAAF World Relays.

The Japanese hosts necessarily and understandably viewed these Relays at 72,327-seat International Stadium — site of the 2002 World Cup soccer final that saw Brazil defeat Germany, 2-0 — as a test event for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Tokyo is maybe 35 minutes away. At a Friday news conference, Hiroshi Yokokawa, president of the Japanese track and field federation and member of the IAAF council, said, “The road [on which] we are now standing is heading straight to the Tokyo 2020 Games.” Koji Murofushi, the 2004 Athens hammer throw gold medalist and Tokyo 2020 sports director, called the Relays a “milestone for the Tokyo 2020 Games.” Even the athletes understood the direction, Ryota Yamagata, who ran the leadoff leg on the Japanese men’s silver-medal 4x100 relay at the 2016 Rio Games, declaring, “We want to have a good start to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and 37[-plus] seconds is a good benchmark.”

Compare to the words of IAAF president Seb Coe.

IAAF president Seb Coe at Friday’s pre-meet news conference

IAAF president Seb Coe at Friday’s pre-meet news conference

The Relays, Coe said at that very same news conference, make for a “suffusion of fun and innovation.”

At another moment: “A real synthesis, I guess, of fusion and fun — and innovation.”

Yet again: “Look, the mainstay of our sport has to be a recognition that we have to always be thinking about what is going to attract new, young fans …

“Athletics in all its manifestations — whether it’s roads, whether it’s cross-country, track and field, indoor, outdoor — in each of those manifestations we must recognize that the world moves on. And it’s not change for the sake of change. It’s recognizing that we need to always listen to what the athletes want, what are fans are saying to us, what are potential partners are saying— that’s why changes to the Diamond League, that’s why changes in formats that we road-tested. The World Relays have been a really — you know, in a way, a really good incubator for us. A lot of the things that we have taken into our championships have been road-tested in this environment, and I think we will find that we will continue to do that.”

To listen to Coe is to understand that these Relays are at an inflection point.

This is the one regularly scheduled event on the IAAF calendar that, in the spirit of the Youth Olympic Games and the newly created World Urban Games, offers track and field authorities wide latitude to experiment.

The problem is that, to date, the experimenting has been too cautious.

Even the IAAF is only half-in, half-out with its institutional positioning. It needs to make clear to all its stakeholders that the Relays matter, and significantly. 

For instance, at last October’s Buenos Aires Youth Games — the BA YOG will come to be understood in the history of the 21st century of the Olympic movement as a transformative event — the International Olympic Committee held, in conjunction with the sports festival, not just a regular assembly of its members but a far-reaching think tank called “Olympism in Action.”

Here in Yokohama?

The IAAF has not even convened a meeting of its policy-making, 27-member council.

Yes, last week marked the start of the annual Diamond League season, in Doha, Qatar, and there’s an excellent argument that it’s too much to go from Doha to Yokohama.

That’s all the more reason to suggest the Relays are not major league, though, right?

Credit to the Japanese for stepping up on short notice. In truth, they had perhaps six or seven months to throw together Relays edition No. 4. And of course they viewed it as a test event. That’s just logical.

The disconnect:

The domestic ticket lottery opened Thursday for the Tokyo 2020 Games; would-be buyers overwhelmed the computer system; news services reported the number of attempts to access the site had reached about 1.3 million by 5 p.m. Thursday and up to 180,000 applicants had been queued at one point with wait times up to two hours and longer.

Track and field is going to be a big draw next summer. As that Rio silver proved, the Japanese team has some serious talent. Yoshihide Kiryu, who ran the third leg on that Rio silver 4x1, is the first Japanese to run a sub-10 100 — 9.98 in 2017.

And yet on Saturday night at International Stadium, attendance at the Relays proved dismal. The upper deck of the vast stadium was completely empty (indeed, six sections blocked off by signage — but, strangely, no Tokyo 2020 signs, go figure), the lower bowl filled in only in patches. Officials initially announced attendance at 12,416, then revised it upward at 8:35 p.m. to 14,766, then again at 9 p.m. to 15,083. Pick whatever one feels good.

It’s anyone’s guess how low the figure Sunday might go because at these fourth Relays there will be no Japanese 37-second benchmark. The Japanese 4x1 guys — in a scene evocative of so many U.S. relays in years past — bobbled the baton in passing from legs three to four, Yuki Koike to Kiryu. Oops. Instant DQ. So long, meet showpiece.

“We made bad judgment of baton exchanges,” Koike was reported to have said afterward.

Saturday night at the Relays

Saturday night at the Relays

The Bahamas put on the first three edition of the Relays, in 2014, 2015 and 2017, but after that, the government there said, enough.

Too bad, because the first three editions did offer up innovation. The IAAF likes to tout, justifiably, introductions of the athletes in the manner swim meets have been doing for years (in one IAAF description, “like prize fighters from behind a curtain”) to instant victory ceremonies. There’s also the mixed 4x400 relay in 2017, mixed events now the rage across Olympic sports. 

All good.

The 2019 edition saw another newbie, shuttle hurdles opening and then closing Saturday’s first night of racing.

All good again except that what was supposed to have been a four-team final ended up being two. Jamaica pulled out with an injury and then Australia was DQ’d for a false start. The United States, with Devon Allen anchoring, won in 54.96 seconds, Japan taking second in 55.59.

So that was a kind of a — blah.

At any rate, Relays-wise, the most important thing that has happened on the field of play took place in 2015. That’s when Usain Bolt showed up in the Bahamas — only to have the Americans beat the Jamaicans in the 4x1 relay, Ryan Bailey mimicking Bolt’s signature “To Di World” pose with a little throat-slash for extra effect.

Bolt is not here. (What, do the Relays matter?) The entire Jamaican team flew over on an American Airlines flight from LA. A flight attendant on that aircraft, talking about Bolt, said with a big smile, “He’s a party!”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is big-picture what happened in the Bahamas, a party, and what ought to be the lesson going forward for the Relays — because it is the lesson from Buenos Aires and it surely is going to be what’s what at the Urban Games this September in Budapest. 

This is the template: music and sports equals fun equals a party equals a destination for young people.

Music and sports are the two universal languages, and why sports officials are so slow in recognizing that the two ought to be married, not kept apart, remains an enduring mystery. 

Here we go:

In the Bahamas, the best part of the Relays were the distance races — when a junkanoo band played in the Thomas A. Robinson Stadium. 

Second-best was the jerk chicken at the concession stands, but we digress.

Far from being boring, in the stands the 4x1500s in the Bahamas made for a rollicking dance funkathon.  

The IAAF has moved away from distance events at the 2019 Relays — nothing longer here than a 400, which once more is fine — but a two-day event offers the perfect occasion to stage a music festival (think Coachella, think Stagecoach) with track and field at night.

The IAAF already gets the “night” part — Saturday night’s first race started at 6:38 p.m. and ended at 10:09. Familiar complaint: the program needs to be closer to two hours, not three and a half. Also, Saturday’s line-up featured only two finals. When your stadium is 20 percent full, maybe you ask — who wants to pay for just two finals?

Anyway: an all-day music pass would get you into the track at night.

IOC president Thomas Bach has made plain that Olympic-style sport has to be about more than just stadiums — to be about meeting people where they are. That’s why the park concept that Buenos Aires pulled off so brilliantly is the model going forward — it showed that a festival, where you could watch 3x3 basketball or sport climbing or breakdancing, is the way to get people geeked up. 

Once people actually watch track and field — once they see its athleticism, power, drama and beauty — they are almost always, like, wow. The trick is to get them to it. 

The challenge, obviously, is the stadium, especially one as huge as 72,327 seats. But even smaller ones, too. It’s why the mascot Hero the Hedgehog was a revelation at the London 2017 world championships. He made the stadium a play space. He made it — fun. 

There is an entirely separate debate about how much of track and field ought to be held outside the confines of a stadium. (Shot put in train stations, for instance.) But let’s be real. If you’re running 100s or 400s on a track, you’re gonna be, for the most part, in a stadium. So, to be creative, how are you going to draw young people, especially, around and then into the stadium? 

Duh. Rock and roll. Or country. Or hip-hop. Or whatever. And then — something like the Relays.

The days when track and field could rely on itself to draw 72,327 — except once every four years, at the Olympic Games — are long gone. The sport will always have a committed, passionate core of supporters. But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to be relevant only in a summer when the calendar includes a February 29.

Coe has the right instinct. The Relays are an incubator. The Relays are for fun. 

The next edition should lead with a music festival, with the world’s biggest and most dynamic acts. Eugene in 2021 is coming right up. Someone somewhere in the United States — Mt. SAC in greater LA, maybe, where inexplicably the stadium that should have had the Trials in 2020 is gonna be finished sooner than Hayward Field in Oregon — should do this, and if this is a money problem, then it’s in the IAAF’s interest to get help figuring this out. 

If not Mt. SAC, then Austin. Or — somewhere.

Because the clock is already ticking toward 2028 and LA, and this window — for Coe, for the Relays, for track and field — is only going to be open for so long.