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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten of the Decade #3

My #3 fan experience of the decade was my trip to the 2008 Olympic Trials.

A sports columnist whose name (and column) escapes me at the moment said that in 2008, track & field in the USA was down on its luck and experiencing hard times of its own making. So like many who have seen the same kind of trouble, it did the only right thing: it went to church. Hayward Field is the cathedral of the sport in America.

Maybe a more apt comparison is Portiuncula Chapel. For those (like me) without deep knowledge of Catholic history, that's the name of the tiny chapel erected near Assisi by St. Francis. Cathedrals are big, overdone wastes of money, the medieval equivalents of today's megachurches. My wife and her sisters were disgusted by the accumulation of wealth in the Vatican; now she teaches at a small Catholic college that regularly uses a recreation of that chapel.

Hayward Field is hardly a giant stadium; to seat more than 20,000 they have to bring in so much extra seating that it spills over onto adjoining roads. To meet management's credit, they decided to make this "bug" into a "feature", and close down the area around the stadium and make it a festival. It was a great idea, allowed beer and food to be served right near your seats, and made for great arial shots on TV.

The stadium itself is old and beautiful. When you walk in, it sounds and looks like waiting in line for an old wooden roller coaster. Its signature roofs brung up memories of the old Tiger Stadium. It is filled with people who are thrilled to be there.

The meet? Great. It's an Olympic Trials, which Garry Hill thinks is the greatest meet in the world. (He's wrong, but not by much.) The thing that stood out most was that it seemed like a gathering of the sport for the entire country. I worked a Running Film Festival where everyone showed up, and I mean everyone. I hung out with people who worked on press row. I ate pizza in the booth next to John Godina; I introduced myself to Rob Myers and had coffee with him.

The most thrilling moment was such a little thing. I'm a teacher and have seen Lean On Me more times than I care to count. During Hazel Clark's victory lap, I stood at the fence next to the track. I looked over my shoulder at one point and saw a very fit but clearly middle-aged woman, who I vaguely recognized. A moment later I figured out she was Hazel's older sister, umpteen-time national champ Joetta Clark. There was an old man with her who exuded a quiet badass attitude. The next time I looked, they were gone. Only then did I realize he was Joe Clark.

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