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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The NCAA "Preliminary Round" idea wasn't so bad after all. The plan was hatched last year: reduce from four regionals to two, and compete only enough to cut the field to twelve in each event. Forty-eight competitors in each field event all at once sounded like a complete clusterfuck. But it went off just fine. I thought the whole thing was going to be boring beyond imagination, but I found myself compelled to follow the rounds obsessively. I can identify two reasons I got into it: this cool championship bracket, and the fact that it truly was do-or-die as there were no at-large bids available.

I don't yet know the attendance totals for the East, but the West attendance (1,798 on Saturday), while not great, was better than all but two of this year's conference championships. While you might think the crowd was mainly family and friends of athletes, that doesn't explain why the attendance increased every day as the fields were reduced. This system might be a one-off experiment, but if it were retained and a meet held within driving distance I would go.

Chaunte Howard had a great week. First she beat super-jumper Blanka Vlasic at the IAAF World Challenge meet in Ostrava, the Croatian's first loss of 2010. Then on Saturday she broke the 22-year-old American Record with 6' 7 3/4" (2.04 meters) in Cottbus, Germany. It's been a very long time since an American high jumper has been on a roll like this.

College track meet attendance sucks. OK, we didn't learn that this week. But it got written up this week at the always-excellent Heps Track blog. Finding that the Heps (aka the Ivy League) had the best attendance of any conference meet this year, Brett Hoover wrote about it and quoted me as saying
I tend to avoid college meets because they’re never interesting. No team scoring, nothing on the line, and the system rewards fast times over racing for place. Give us six straight weeks of that and of course no one comes out for the one meet that matters at the end of the season.
Commenter Greg Page agreed.
Why on earth would the general sports fan want to attend an athletic contest with no team winner, and with competitors more interested in beating a clock than in beating each other? Where’s the drama or entertainment in that?

I founded three collegiate track/x-c programs and coached The Sport for 26 years, but unless I had someone (like alma mater) competing in it, I wouldn’t walk across the street to see a college track meet. Many hours with nothing at stake, no intrinsic drama.

And yet track people genuinely wonder why college track teams are being eliminated.
Track is doing better in the USA than most people think, except for the college level, where it's doing worse than almost anyone realizes.

The California Relays aren't dead. But they may be soon. Track in the US is almost undead sometimes, not really alive but impossible to kill. The meet formerly known as the Modesto Relays moved up to Sacramento after being canceled last year. A meet that used to reliably draw 5,000 fans in a sparsely populated area only brought in about 1,000 after moving to the big city. I'm not sure how much that can be blamed on anything besides their complete lack of self-promotion, though. I don't know if that was an oversight or a limitation of the budget. Either way, the meet will either do better or disappear.

Dr. Sander gets it, and so does the OSAA. As reported earlier in this space, the Armory Track & Field Center's head honcho knows how to really make things work: bring together multiple levels of track and field, such as at the Penn Relays. Not coincidentally, those Modesto Relays long ago were the Modesto Relays and State Junior College Championships. The Oregon high school championship meet, held yesterday, included a special 1500m pro race. Most other state athletic associations would have nothing to do with that, but Oregon generally knows what's good for track.

Des Moines is going for the jugular. An article in today's Des Moines Register indicated that the city and Drake University are going all-out to get the 2016 Olympic Trials. They've got a formidable opponent in Eugene, but they're hungry like the wolf and will leave no stone unturned. Can I get some more cliches in there? I think they've got a fighting chance, though. Some universities have endowed their track program, but Drake has endowed a meet director. The recent two-day Iowa High School Championships drew over 26,000 fans, which is off the charts for a state as small as Iowa. Pro-rate for population and Texas' championship would have to draw over 220,000 to top the Tall Corn State (a two-day total never achieved anywhere in the world). Last year's NCAA championships were held at Drake in the middle of epic floods and still broke the meet attendance record. Iowa can fill some seats, no doubt about it.

You see something new every day. If I told you this was the start of a 400m hurdle race, would something strike you as odd?
Lane four is using no blocks. This is the finals of the NCAA Division III Championships, held on Saturday in Berea OH. The athlete in question is Ben Zill of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who took second in the race in 51.46. That time would have narrowly missed qualifying him to the national championships in Division I. I'd love it if somebody were able to get to add a dedicated track site to their coverage of four other sports. It would make following a large and diverse level of track much easier.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Diversity Is Our Strength

Recently Mary Wittenberg, head of the New York Road Runners Club, wrote a guest column at Universal Sports in which she talks about track's "Big Tent", comparing the phrase's political meaning of "gathering and embracing many different points of view and constituencies under one umbrella to pursue shared goals"to track's fragmentation along many events and disciplines.

Today Dr. Norbert Sander, head of New York's Armory Track & Field Center, seconded that thought. He also indicated there's more than one way to look at the "Big Tent" idea:
We should try to bring these three groupings: high school, college, professional, on occasion, under one competitive roof. Show high schoolers what collegians are doing and show the pros what the collegians are accomplishing. One could make the argument that the interest of the public began to wane when we began paying athletes to compete. Likewise, as in the case of the Millrose Games when collegians began to leave Madison Square Garden the number of spectators dropped markedly.
He's absolutely right, of course. Those times we bring all levels of the sport together are the springtime relay carnivals, and they are wildly popular. What passes as poor attendance at Penn, Drake, Texas, Mt SAC, or Florida would be cause for great celebration at almost any other meet. As popular as the Ducks are in Eugene, none of their home meets drew more than the multi-level Oregon Relays. I also think the USA's once-great indoor circuit began to dry up when deep fields of collegians were no longer available.

It's hard to sell people on diversity, but in so many ways it is our strength. The same can be said for the USA.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Your sweet link of the day: NCAA regionals presented as brackets.

Which is, of course, what the NCAA Cabinet intended them to be thought as.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Regionals: Hows and Whys

Today’s Austin American-Statesman takes a look at the new regional format that NCAA Division I is stuck with this year and where it came from. As with most news, however, it’s important to read between the lines.

When introducing the history of regionals, sportswriter Randy Riggs picks an interesting word.
In 2003, the regional concept was introduced. The regionals, with eased qualifying standards, were designed to promote head-to-head competition for spots at nationals, provide a "championship experience" to more, and eliminate athletes from "chasing marks" at meets around the country.

But many coaches howled.
Many coaches howled? I think a better word is “some”. Every time the format came up for a vote at the coaches’ convention, it was overwhelmingly approved. And, of course, this is due to the classic “who benefits, who doesn’t” analysis. Coaches of the top programs, the ones trying to win a national championship, are trying to get as many athletes to the national meet as possible. To them, only bad things can happen at a regional meet—namely, not qualifying. To everyone else, only good things can happen—namely, spots that would have gone to those same top programs opening up to them.

Opposition to qualifying-by-competing has come from a small and vocal minority. Notably, Riggs only quotes coaches from Texas and Texas A&M, the type of powerful institutions supposedly being courted by the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10. Coaches at mid-majors like TCU or Rice or UTEP didn’t enter into the equation, never mind schools from the Southland or SWAC. To his great credit, The Oregonian’s Ken Goe notes that while Oregon’s Vin Lananna hates regionals, schools like Portland State has much to gain from them. Yet he fails to note that there are ten Portland States for every Oregon.

It’s worth noting how the athletes see it:
While many coaches don't like the current setup, athletes don't seem to mind.

"I'm excited for how they're doing it," Texas intermediate hurdler Angele Cooper said. "I feel it's a fair shot. You do well, you go to nationals."

Longhorns long jumper Marquise Goodwin compared it to qualifying for the high school state meet through a regional competition.

"I think it's pretty fair to come to regionals and everyone getting to compete against each other," Goodwin said.

Athletes compete. It’s what they do. They like it.

So if regionals were so well liked, and the few who didn’t preferred the old qualify-by-marks system, why did we get saddled with the current setup that satisfies no one? Some have said it’s a secret plan to kill regionals. If it is, it’s no secret. But it didn't comme from the coaches.
The new, dual-site "preliminary rounds" are the result of several years of back-and-forth negotiations essentially among three entities — the national coaches association, the NCAA Division I track and field executive committee and the NCAA Division I championships/sports management cabinet.

The cabinet, comprised primarily of university athletic directors, faculty reps and conference officials, has the ultimate authority. It rejected several proposals by the coaches association and track and field executive committee before finally settling on the new format.

The current system cam from the NCAA Cabinet, which oversees all sports and has no particular attachment to track & field. When your realize this, everything makes a little more sense. One of their goals has been to increase the number of athletes competing at the NCAA championships so that it’s reasonably similar to participation rates in championships for other sports. That meant changing the semantics, so that “regionals” became “first round”. Unfortunately, the format changed as well.

Another thing the Cabinet wanted was to make track more like other sports. Football has Bowl Week. Basketball has March Madness. Baseball and softball have the College World Series. About a year ago a two-weekend proposal for the NCAA track championships was floated, in which 64 athletes would qualify in each event and the first weekend would pare down to a “sweet 16” for the final weekend. No one liked it and it was taken of the table.

The proposal likely to be used next year is OK, I guess.
Dubbed the "Wilson Plan" because it was recommended by Minnesota assistant coach Gary Wilson, the proposal also goes by the "24-8 Plan."

Under the proposal, the top 24 entries on the descending-order list of best performances in each event automatically qualify for nationals. Joining them would be eight conference champions in each event, excluding those already in the top 24, based on their season-best marks.
But none of this gets to the real issue. The function of the NCAA’s Division I is to provide spectator sports. Track has essentially no spectators. It’s not on TV much either, not when compared to lesser sports like lacrosse, softball and gymnastics.

Track coaches and observers are fond of throwing up their hands and saying “There’s just not a lot of interest in track”. But that’s not true at all. The professional end of the sport has very good attendance, and the TV ratings are amazing considering the shabby production. High school track gets attendance numbers and interest levels superior to even the pros. It’s only college track that goes ignored.

As long as the only thing that matters about track’s regular season is getting good marks and resting up for the championships, it will remain uninteresting. Regionals helped the situation, as it freed up time for duals that previously would have been spent on chasing marks. But it still didn’t address the problem that if you watch a regular-season meet, there’s nothing on the line. The outcome doesn’t matter.

When deciding how we choose who competes at the NCAA championships, we need to think creatively. We need to think less about our own interests and more about what makes track interesting. The status quo is unacceptable.

EDIT: Let's Run is examining the alternate qualifying plan expected to be in place next year.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Happy Jesse Owens Day!

Seventy-five years ago today, at Michigan's Ferry Field, five thousand spectators saw Jesse Owens set five world records in one afternoon. Sports Illustrated has the story.

In other blogs, Joe Battaglia says we need some superfans. Isn't one enough?
Martin Bingisser had a blast in Germany.
The Oregonian has a whole team live-blogging their state championships.
Conway Hill breaks down the Big 12 Championships.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Usain Bolt is our golden ticket. His 100 race in Korea on Wednesday made SportsCenter. Track doesn't get on SportsCenter. In the tiny, remote portion of SportsCenters that have ever shown track, it was the height of the season leading into an Olympics. Obviously, Wednesday's race does not fit that description. SportsCenter, of course, used to be informative and entertaining, but now it breaks down thus...
funny graphs and charts

Jeremy Wariner isn't going to be on SportsCenter ever again. I think he was sometime in the 2004-2006 era, and just once. He won today in Shanghai, but in a pedestrian time (or at least pedestrian for him). While he still could come out on top of the 400 this year, I think his days of being a superstar are over.

Ditto for Pamela Jelimo. The wunderkind of two years ago ran eighth in today's Diamond League meet. Whatever magic she had that year hasn't resurfaced since.

The universe is orderly. The steeplechase in Shanghai today saw Kenyans go 1-2-3. So what's notable about that? It was the women's steeplechase, an event that hasn't yet seen the same Kenyan hegemony as the men's steeplechase. Today might be an indication that it will.

Cory Martin probably isn't messing around with the hammer throw anymore. A few weeks ago I identified Martin as one of the few hammer throwers we have with any real chance at a 2o12 Olympic medal, but it was unlikely since he splits time with the shot put. Well, probably not now. Martin competed in an all-throwers meet yesterday at Arizona's Drachman Stadium and unleashed a world leader. He made the US team for the 2010 World Indoor Championships and now has stamped himself as a challenger to Christian Cantwell--and a possible 2012 shot put medalist. Sixteen-pound ball yes, on the end of a 4-foot wire no.

How's that new coach coming along? After the World Indoor Championships, Valerie Vili's first loss since September 2007, the Kiwi shot putter fired her lifelong coach. Today was Vili's worst outing in recent memory, and fouled on three of her six attempts. To be fair, adjustments often require one step back before two steps forward, so judgment time is August, not now. But it's hardly encouraging.

Things are changing. Two major PED-related stories in the sports press this week, and neither had the slightest connection to track.

Colorado could be the Penn State of the Pac-10. So says the Bleacher Report. But there's a difference from our perspective: Penn State didn't change the Big Ten's status as a second-rate track conference, but Colorado would make the Pac-10 cross country championships absolute murder, a must-watch event.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Shanghai Diamond League Preview

The meet will be webcast live at at 8 AM on Sunday (fee req'd). TV coverage will be on Universal Sports at 6:00 PM and on CBC next Saturday at 5:00 PM
Meet website
IAAF preview

Universal Sports preview

6:20 AM (EDT) Women's Shot Put
Leading entries
#1 Nadzeya Ostapchuk (BLR), #2 Valerie Vili (NZL), #5 Nadine Kleinert (GER), #6 Jillian Camarena (USA), #8 Gong Lijiao (GHN), #9 Misleydis Gonzalez (CUB), #25 Liu Xiangrong (CHN)
Ostapchuk v. Vili is one of the best rivalries around. This will be Vili's first big test since firing her coach after losing the World Indoor Championships to Ostapchuk. Everyone else here is competing for third.

6:30 AM Men's Discus Throw
Leading entries
#1 Gerd Kanter (EST), #2 Robert Harting (GER), #3 Jason Young (USA), #4 Piotr Malachowski (POL), #5 Zoltán Kövágó (HUN), #7 Jarred Rome (USA), #13 Ehsan Hadadi (IRI), #25 Ian Waltz (USA)
One effect of the Diamond League setup is that the traditionally ignored events, like the discus, will have loaded fields every time out. Kanter has put up some big distances in southern California's big winds, but Harting won at the recent all-throws meet in Germany. Those two, along with Kövágó, are your favorites for the win.

6:35 AM Women's Triple Jump
Leading entries
#1 Olga Rypakova (KAZ), #2 Yargeris Savigne (CUB), #3 Anna Pyatykh (RUS), #8 Nadezhda Alekhina (RUS), #9 Limei Xie (CHN), #18 Gisele de Oliviera (BRA)
All three World Indoor medalists are here, led by champion Rypakova.

7:40 AM Men's Pole Vault
Leading entries
#1 Steve Hooker (AUS), #2 Malte Mohr (GER), #6 Steve Lewis (UK), #14 Hendrik Gruber (GER), #15 Aleksandr Gripich (RUS), #25 Maksym Mazuryk (UKR)
It would be very surprising if Hooker lost.

7:43 AM Men's High Jump
Leading entries
#3 Dusty Jonas (USA), #4 Jesse Williams (USA), #8 Andra Manson (USA), #12 Andrey Tereshin (RUS)
It looks like the USA should do well here. Most of these guys haven't competed much since the indoor season, with the exception of Jonas and Manson.


8:05 AM Women's 400m Hurdles
Leading entries
#1 Lashinda Demus (USA), #2 Melaine Walker (JAM), #4 Kaliese Spencer (JAM), #6 Natalya Antyukh (RUS), #8 Sheena Tosta (USA), #9 Anna Jesien (POL), #11 Ana Rabechenyuk (UKR), #16 Dominique Darden (USA)
Walker is the defending World champ but has a habit of starting her season slowly. Look for Demus to win.

8:15 AM Women's 100 meters
Leading entries
#1 Carmelita Jeter (USA), #5 Shelly-Ann Fraser (JAM), #8 Chandra Sturrup (BAH), #21 Sherone Simpson (JAM), #23 Lisa Barber (USA)
World champ Fraser is one of the "Diamond League Ambassadors", but Jeter is the star of this show.

8:20 AM Men's Javelin Throw
Leading entries
#2 Andreas Thorkildsen (NOR), #8 Petr Frydrych (CZE), #10 Vítězslav Veselý (CZE), #15 Igor Janik (POL), #24 Roman Avramenko (UKR)
This is Thorky's season opener, so while he's favored it's hard to tell what may happen. This competition will not count in the Diamond League standings as it's an extra event above and beyond the mandated events.

8:25 AM Men's 400 meters
Leading entries
#4 Jeremy Wariner (USA), #7 Ben Offereins (AUS), #15 Leslie Djhoné (FRA), #22 David Neville (USA)
We'll find out whether Wariner was just rusty in his opener or if he's really having problems. He lost to Neville last time out, and both Offereins and Djhoné are capable of sub-45. This is no cakewalk for Wariner.

8:30 AM Men's Long Jump
Leading entries
#1 Dwight Phillips (USA), #2 Fabrice Lapierre (AUS), #3 Irving Saladino (PAN), #12 Brian Johnson (USA), #14 Su Xiongfeng (CHN), #15 Chris Noffke (AUS)
This could be the most interesting competition of the whole meet. Lapierre put up a big mark in April, Phillips was on fire last year, and Saladino is no slouch. Chinese entry Su is a dark horse and the home team's best chance for a win.

8:35 AM Men's 200 meters
Leading entries
#1 Usain Bolt (JAM), #12 Marvin Anderson (JAM), #18 Ryan Bailey (USA)
Like lambs to slaughter.

8:45 AM Women's Steeplechase
Leading entries
#3 Milcah Chemos Cheywa (KEN), #8 Gladys Kipkemoi (KEN), #11 Sofia Assefa (ETH), #18 Lydia Rotich (KEN), #20 Katarzyna Kowalska (POL), #25 Lisa Galaviz (USA)
This is the first steeplechase of the year for all but Galaviz.

9:05 AM Women's 800 meters
Leading entries
#2 Jenny Meadows (UK), #3 Yegeniya Zinurova (RUS), #4 Kenia Sinclair (JAM), #10 Janeth Jepkosgei (KEN), #18 Tatyana Petlyuk (IKR)
Sinclair may be more race-sharp than the others, as she's run two big races already while Meadows and Zinurova have been on the shelf since the indoor season.

8:15 AM Women's 5000 meters
Leading entries
#3 Linet Masai (KEN), #8 Sentayehu Ejigu (ETH), #11 Meselech Melkamu (ETH), #14 Sylvia Kibet (KEN), #18 Florence Kiplagat (KEN)
World XC runner-up Masai has, so far, put together the best season.

9:40 AM Men's 110m Hurdles
Leading entries
#1 David Oliver (USA), #6 Dwight Thomas (JAM), #8 Ryan Brathwaite (BAR), #15 Liu Xiang (CHN), #22 Allen Johnson (USA)
The house will be rockin' for Liu Xiang. But I'd be surprised if he won. Oliver is head and shoulders above the rest.

9:50 AM Men's 1500 meters
Leading entries
#1 Augustine Choge (KEN), #2 Deresse Mekonnen (ETH), #3 Haron Keitany (KEN), #6 Asbel Kiprop (KEN), #7 William Tanui (KEN), #16 Mekonnen Gebremedhin (ETH), #23 Geoffrey Rono (KEN)
This is the first outdoor 1500 of the season of any importance. Indoors, Mekonnen beat Choge in their only meeting.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Anti-Doping News

There's one thing that really irks me in the way anti-doping efforts are covered in the sports news. A headline in today's USA Today gets right down to it:

War on performance-enhancing drugs drags on with no end in sight

Of course it will never end!

Let's see how silly this looks when we replace "performance-enhancing drugs" with other similar terms.

War on recruiting violations drags on with no end in sight
War on crime drags on with no end in sight
War on Congressional corruption drags on with no end in sight
War on corporate malfeasance drags on with no end in sight

Performance-enhancing drugs are no different than these other issues. They will always be with us. We can do a good job of battling them or a bad job, but the thought that we could ever be rid of them is ridiculous.

In other news, Floyd Landis finally admitted he was using all kinds of PEDs for all of his professional career. He's named other athletes, managers and coaches involved.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Issues Facing College Track, Part 3

It's been a while since I last touched on this subject, as last week was a busy one in track. This series of posts is about the challenges college track faces in the way of catching the attention of fans and the media, without which we matter little more to an athletic department than the fencing team. In part 1 of the series I pointed out how college track's regular season, stretching from late March to early May, has no real meaning and little to catch the interest of track fans. And in part 2 I discussed the importance of emphasizing the team aspect of college track over the individual aspect.

At this point I need to come up with some ideas about how to make those two things happen: emphasize team competition during the regular season. The key is in incentives, although in a meaning slightly different than you might think.

It has been said that economics is the study of incentives. I work in a field--public education--in which all kinds of malarky ideas about incentives are thrown around and implemented without any real understanding of what incentives are or how they work. Incentives aren't external motivators, like pay or the threat of being fired or other such things. They are the goals you wish to attain, your basic motivators for action. In the business world, making money and avoiding being killed off by competitors are the only real goals a corporation has, so in that setting remuneration and job security are the prime motivators for its employees. In that situation, they are incentives, and business people make the mistake of assuming those are everyone's incentives. They aren't in educational institutions, because they're not the goals of the organization or the people who choose to make it their life.

Another thing that schools are subjected to are evaluation systems. In Ohio, the state board of education throws a bunch of numbers into a meat grinder and comes out with an evaluation of each school district in one of five categories. Very often, the schools that rate well aren't any better or worse than the others, but are much more adept at figuring out how to make their numbers look good. This is predicted by Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor".

In college track & field, we evaluate teams according to a number of systems, but the foremost is the national championships. A team with a single great athlete can look really good this way, making a top-25 finish at the NCAA Championships, when his team as a whole isn't very good at all. No wonder that it's relatively common for teams to concentrate on one area and abandon much of the rest. Kansas State may have finished 11th in the Big 12, but if Erik Kynard wins the high jump at the NCAA championships, the Wildcats will probably be a top-25 team. A one-man team is not interesting to watch, though.

Those teams who aspire to compete for the national championships spend the regular season trying their darndest to get as many athletes to qualify to the NCAA championships as possible. Splitting squads happens with regularity. Putting all their athletes out to win a regular-season team competition is actually penalized rather than rewarded. But this is not interesting to watch.

Our incentive system, our reasons for the existence of college track, is to blame for this. It's no one's fault; little by little we decided that ranking at nationals is more important than placing well at the conference meet, which is in turn more important than compiling a winning dual-meet record. And that's not going to change. So what we must do, in order to make college track interesting and watchable and attention-worthy, is to radically change how we rank teams at the national championships.

My proposal would be this: Eight teams get selected to compete for the NCAA team championship. Those eight teams automatically get two entries per event (and one for relays). The remainder of the fields for each event would be another sixteen athletes not on those teams, and who would not count in the team scoring. There would be eight teams battling it out for the championship, and everyone else would be competing for the glory of their university, but not for its place in the standings.

In many instances, athletes from the team competition would make the finals of their event. An example would be Jeff Demps in the 100 meters for the Florida Gators. They would not only be competing for team points but for an individual honors and All-American status. Such finalists would take the top spots in the team scoring, and a B-final made up of the top semi-finalists (and quarter-finalists, if need be) from the eight teams competing for the title would round out the scoring for each event.

Five of the eight teams would be the champions of the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC. The other three would be at-large selections based on the results of regular-season scored meets. You'd have to schedule scored meets against good teams and beat them if you wanted to get an at-large bid--and since no one knows ahead of time that they're going to win a conference title, everyone with nationals aspirations would then have to make tough scored meets a priority.

The emphasis would no longer rest on getting individuals to the national championships, but the team as a whole. In fact, by getting the team to the nationals, then a spot for each individual would be secured. This system would radically change the raison d'etre for college track, from a collection of individuals to an actual team.

I'm only suggesting this for the outdoor championships, not the indoor ones. The indoor season is too short, and anyway there's some fun in variety. Two different ways of determining a national champion would, I think, make track more interesting. A coach of a top program would have to consciously choose which title he was going to go after.

I don't have any illusions that my idea would ever come to pass. But it sure would change the incentives.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The Diamond League works. Not necessarily to bring the best athletes together--although it most certainly did that in the traditionally ignored field events and some of the running events, such as the men's 800. It works in that it gets lots of press. We're three months away from the peak of the season, and in a faraway corner of the globe, and it was in the sports press at least as much as the old Golden League meets were. And there are 14 of these meets instead of six.

Asafa Powell is up to his old tricks. He ran a wind-aided 9.75 in the heats at the Doha Diamond League meet and then ran significantly slower in the final. He set a world record that way three years ago. He always runs fastest when it doesn't really matter.

Tyson Gay is ready to run well. He ran in the Manchester Great City Games today, a weird street-racing festival held the afternoon after the Great Manchester Run 10k. This was where Usain Bolt ran a straightaway 150 last May. Always looking for something new, the organizers brought in Gay and gave him a shot at Tommie Smith's old 200m straightaway record of 19.5 seconds, which dates from 1965. Gay ran 19.41 into a slight headwind (0.4 m/s). I'm going to say it's worth about 19.75 around a turn in still air. So he's well behind Bolt right now, but still easily the second-best in the world.

Whitman College appears to be a very cool place. It's a small and exclusive college in Walla Walla, Washington, which may have a unique tradition in all of America: an officially-sanctioned Beer Mile. The ever-popular four-lap / four-brew contest is pretty much a highly illegal activity at every track owned by a college or school--which means every track open to the public. Not here. Cheers!

The World Cup Walks were this weekend. Did you know this? I did. Do you care? Probably not. There are walk fans who read this blog, so I'll be nice. I actually pay some attention to the walks and have gone to see a few competitions. Summary: the Russians couldn't reproduce the great performances they've put up at home and the Chinese whupped ass.

Geb is in the twilight of his career. He won today's Great Manchester Run 10k, but in a pedestrian 28:04. He's deliberately avoided other high-level runners over the last few years for a reason: he can't beat them anymore.

Rabbit Season! Looking through the Doha Diamond League results, I was kind of surprised to see the name "Patrick Langat" in third in the steeplechase. It was not a name I knew. It turns out he was the rabbit, and tried to pull a Tom Byers: nobody is following you, so you don't drop out and try to steal the win.

Duck Season! The Pac-10 men's championship was supposed to be close, but Oregon blew away Southern Cal. The OU women broke the meet scoring record long before the meet was even over. With the NCAA held at Hayward Field this year, I think the Ducks might be able to pull off a double win. Certainly the women's team looks like the best in the country, and the men's team had the best performance of any this weekend as Texas A&M only took third at the Big 12 and Florida is still struggling to come out ahead at the SEC.

I'm going to try my hand at TV. Seriously. This week's eulogy for Ernie Harwell in Sports Illustrated got me thinking. What Harwell and his ilk did so well was to communicate their love for the game of baseball. I do stadium announcing and everyone tells me I'm the best they've heard this side of the Rockies. I merely love track, do my homework, and want the athletes to feel like a million bucks and the fans to know what they're seeing. I'm no Ernie Harwell, that's for sure, but I feel like I have something to contribute to track & field. And I've been on camera before; I can tell you it's far easier to talk to a camera than to talk to two dozen hostile teenagers (which I do six times a day, 180 days a year).

How am I going to get on TV? It's easier than you might think. Toledo is unusual in that our cable TV provider is locally-owned, rather than by Time Warner or Comcast. It has a local sports channel which covers, among many other things, high school track. Their announcers are not track people and don't know how to tell the viewers what they're seeing. So I'm going to submit a demo tape to this local sports channel, and if that works out I'll use them to submit demos to the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports Net.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Conference Championships Preview

EDIT: Each preview now has updates.

This is Conference Championship Weekend. The coaches' association website has a Conference Championship Central webpage that has everything you ever wanted to know about Division I conference championships*
*but were afraid to ask

Here are my rundowns of the biggies. Rankings refer to my own collegiate rankings.

Friday through Sunday at Missouri's Walton Stadium
Meet website / LIVE results / LIVE WEBCAST / Live blog
TV coverage: tape-delay on Fox Sports Net regional channels, sometime between May 20 and May 24; check your local listings

The SEC is the best conference, but the Big XII gets listed first because their meet management is working the hardest. They're doing a live webcast and a live blog.

Start lists aren't up yet, making predictions a bit tough. I'd have to say #3 Texas A&M is favored, but it's no slam-dunk over #6 Oklahoma and the defending champs, #11 Nebraska. Adding depth are #12 Texas, #14 Texas Tech and #16 Baylor.

On the women's side I'd be surprised if #2 Texas A&M lost. A tight battle for second will be waged by #11 Nebraska, #12 Texas Tech, #13 Kansas, #14 Oklahoma, #15 Texas and #19 Iowa State.

UPDATE: There's a huge upset brewing in the men's competition--that is, if you can call a team defending its championship an "upset". Nebraska is in the drivers seat; they'd have to make a major mistake to lose. On the women's side, A&M is pretty much a done deal.

Today through Sunday at Tennessee's Tom Black Track
Meet website / LIVE results
TV coverage: tape-delay on ESPNU, Tuesday May 25 (!), 9:00 to 11:00 PM

On the men's side, I'm picking #5 LSU to win over #1 Florida with #8 Georgia third, but it will be tight. #15 Arkansas, #18 Mississippi State, #20 Mississippi, #23 Alabama, #24 Auburn and #25 South Carolina will fight it out after that. The races to watch are the 400 meters and 4x400 relay, which will be smokin'. The sprints in general in the SEC are top-notch, but multiple quarter-milers will post world-class times and the relay is going to be a real shootout.

On the women's side I'm pretty confident #3 LSU will win and #4 Florida will be second, and after that I have no idea. #6 Tennessee and #8 Arkansas are in the mix for that third spot.

UPDATE: The men's race has tightened a bit, but I'm still going with LSU to win. The Tigers are still a lock on the women's side. The meet is currently on a significant rain/lightning delay.

Saturday and Sunday at Cal's historic Edwards Stadium
Meet website / LIVE results
TV coverage: tape-delay on Fox Sports Net regional channels, sometime between May 20 and May 24; check your local listings

Oregon head coach Vin Lanana says the meet is going to be very, very tight, almost too close to call. The conventional wisdom, though, is that he's doing his best impression of Lou Holtz, because everyone else has the Ducks' men (#2) and women (#1) winning in a runaway. I'm pretty sure Southern Cal's men (#4) and women (#9) will be the runners-up. Other top men's teams are #7 Stanford, #9 Arizona State, #13 UCLA, #19 Cal and #22 Washington State. Adding depth to the women are #15 Cal, #17 Arizona State, #18 Stanford, #24 Washington State and #25 UCLA.

UPDATE: No worries, Duck fans.

Big Ten
Friday through Sunday at Indiana's Billy Hayes Track
Meet website / LIVE results
TV Coverage: tape-delay on the Big Ten Network, Saturday May 22 from 4:00 to 7:00 PM

I hesitate to call the Big Ten a major conference in track & field, but the meet will get three hours of national TV coverage. So we'll call it a major conference anyway. On the men's side only #21 Minnesota is ranked. I'm picking them to win with Ohio State second.

On the women's side, #21 Penn State is favored. I've got a hunch that Minnesota could challenge them for the title. The 5k is the most interesting race as it matches the NCAA cross country champion, Angela Bizzari (Illinois), with the woman who beat her at the Big Ten cross country championships, Bridget Franek (Penn State).

UPDATE: The women's competition is basically a dead heat between Penn State and Minnesota. Minnesota is still the favored men's team, but Wisconsin is now the closest behind the Gophers. If the Badgers fail to score big points in the 5k, Ohio State will likely be second.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

USA Road Mile Championship Webcast

I just learned there will be a live webcast of this evening's USA Road Mile Championship beginning at 8:53 PM Eastern time. Pretty cool.

The races have some decent fields. The headliner men are Lopez Lomong, David Torrance and Rob Myers. Lomong was a 2008 Olympian, Torrance ran a great anchor leg in the DMR at Penn, and Myers is a former US indoor champ. The women's race is a bit tougher, with Anna Pierce, Christin Wurth, and Sarah Bowman. The first two are among the best in the world, having run sub-4:00 in the 1500 last year, and Bowman is an up-and-coming pro who starred at Tennessee over the last few years.

Weather Truths

If you read this blog, you know how it works. Track meets cause rain. You could have a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, but if you decided to lace 'em up and bring out a starters pistol then the rain would come down.

A little-known corollary to this law is that canceling track meets eliminates bad weather. Today was supposed to be our junior high city championship, but around 1:00 I got a call that it had been rescheduled for Monday, as the forecast was calling for severe storms and a possible tornado warning.

Yep. It's sunny and 72. Not a cloud on the radar all the way from here to Chicago.

Fan's Guide to Diamond League Doha

LATE EDIT: The meet WILL be at, or at least that's what a recent press release seems to indicate. If not, you can try

TV coverage will be on Universal Sports from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM on Friday, and on CBC from 5:00 PM to 6:00 PM on Saturday.
Meet website

Here's the current schedule and leading entries:

AS you can see, the big-attention events are a bit thin but the rest are stacked with top athletes.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Track's Popularity Soaring?

The WaPo's Amy Shipley has an article today titled Track's popularity soars despite lack of U.S. star power.
Event attendance, nationwide membership numbers and U.S. television ratings are up, or holding steady, even without a single household name on the U.S. track and field team and dwindling coverage of the sport from the mainstream media.

Bolt's astonishing feats and charismatic personality have caught the attention of a broad, non-running audience, a significant development as track and field fights to rebuild after a decade in which myriad doping busts devastated its record books and credibility. But officials say there is more behind the encouraging numbers.

They say years of Web-based communication and an emphasis on social media have allowed the sport to foster a strong, under-the-radar connection to a large audience of track geeks while continually welcoming curious Web explorers, some of whom eventually become new fans.
I'm glad to see that someone believes things are moving in the right direction, but I'd like to add a few insights.

Is attendance going up? That's hard to tell, because attendance totals are rarely kept at ttrack meets and no one centralizes what data there is. Certainly attendance is up at a few key events. Penn, however, always has strong attendance even when Usain Bolt doesn't come to run. The New York GP meet is only now approaching the numbers that its predecessor got in the early 90s. Attendance at the Millrose Games isn't particularly impressive. Bolt made people pay attention to the massive attendance at Penn, but it's always been like that. Before, no one noticed. So I wouldn't say attendance is exploding, just the media's perception of attendance--but that in itself is a major improvement.

Shipley makes repeated reference to doping scandals as the main reason why track had fallen from the public's interest. I disagree completely. If you have people's allegiance, they'll ignore scandals (see: NFL, both political parties, Catholic Church, etc). The problem wasn't doping, it was that track's "leadership" didn't know what to do to keep the public's interest. Everyone battled for control of their own piece of turf, and never realized that the lawn was shrinking to the point where there was no turf left to fight over. Spectators were the last concern of the sport's power brokers, if they were a concern at all. The power of TV was ignored. The "brand" of track & field as a single entity--age-group, high schools, colleges, pros, road runners, and so on--was ignored and left to wither and die. No one realized they were fighting a losing battle against other sports until track hit bottom around 1997. Since then track & field in the USA has begun to clean up, put its life back together and get some dignity--but it's still living in a van down by the river.

I think doping had a more insidious effect on the athletes themselves. Shipley says "Among the top U.S. athletes, there has been a notable attitude shift; the prima donna behavior once characteristic of the sport's biggest U.S. stars -- and seemingly encouraged by their media-wary track agents -- has largely disappeared in what USA Track and Field officials cautiously hope will evolve into something of a post-drugs, get-to-know-our-athletes era." That kind of don't-bother-me attitude goes hand in hand with suspicion of others' motives. And nothing makes a person more suspicious than his own dishonesty. If it really is true that the current generation has less behavior they'd like to hide, then of course they're more willing to talk to the media.

Some other issues Shipley notes may or may not have anything to do with track at all. She notes that the 2000 Olympics had 2,000 media credential requests, which dropped to 1,400 in 2004 and 800 in 2008. I think Shipley knows that the implosion of traditional media is largely to blame for this, but didn't specifically say so. She also notes that while gyms cost good money, working out at your local high school track is free.

Mostly, I think what has changed is that we don't sit around and wait for someone else to take the lead anymore. This began before Tom Borish' Trackshark took off, but when that died we really stopped waiting around.

And yes, we are sitting on a gold mine named Usain Bolt. Track has had maybe one other personality like his in its entire history in Emil Zatopek, but he didn't appeal to Americans like Bolt does.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Worldwide long-distance running is getting deeper all the time. Today was the Prague International Marathon. Not a World Marathon Major, not one of the B-level marathons, maybe a C-level marathon and maybe not. 20-year-old Kenyan Paul Tanui ran 2:05:39, which puts him in the top 20 of all time. His only previous marathon was a 2:12 last year in Kenya. He is so obscure (or was, until today) that the IAAF writeup on the race had to be edited later to fill in that detail; little else is known about him except that he was slated to run the Vienna Marathon three weeks ago but had to pull out due to Icelandic volcanic ash-related travel problems.

And deeper. At today's BIG 25 Berlin, Sammy Kosgei and Mary Keitany both broke the 25k World Records. 25k is an odd distance, and Kosgei's time is notable but not earth-shattering. Keitany's time, however, suggests she's capable of running mid-66 for the half marathon; her PR is 1:06:36, the African record. So while the headlines scream "world record", the numbers say "ran about a PR".

US hammer throwing continues to improve. At the Heps Championships, Princeton frosh Conor McCullough broke the US Junior record for the hammer throw with 70.37 meters (230' 10"). But how would he stack up against today's stars when they were his age? At age 19, Kristian Pars (currently #1 in my world rankings) threw 73.09; Primosz Kozmus (2009 World and 2008 Olympic Champ) threw 66.28; Szymon Ziolkowski (2000 Olympic and 2001 World Champ) threw 75.42; Libor Charfrietag (2008 Olympic bronze) threw 66.82; Ivan Tsikhan (stripped of 2008 Olympic gold for doping) threw 66.84; legend Koji Murofushi threw 68.00. So you can see he's right in the middle of that group and appears to have the potential for greatness. What will determine whether he becomes a bona fide international star is if he improves over the next five years like those other guys did. And isn't that always the case with age-group aces?

Jeremy Wariner is struggling. At yesterday's Ponce Grand Prix in Puerto Rico, the Texan was beaten by David Neville, 45.44 to 45.47. Wariner hasn't lost to anyone but LaShawn Merritt in years. It may be a bit premature to say his days as a dominant quarter-miler are over. On the other hand, only one athlete has ever stayed at or near the top of the men's 400 meters for longer than five years; Wariner, who came to the fore in 2004, has used up five years. The lone exception to that rule is Michael Johnson, and since he split time with the 200 he ran about as many 400 races in ten years as most guys run in five. The event chews people up and spits them out. So don't be surprised if Wariner's struggles continue. If it happens, it's just the way of the world.

The 400m hurdles is shaping up to be a hotly contested event this year.At last year's Worlds, Kerron Clement won the 400m hurdles rather handily and Javier Culson was a bit of a surprise for silver. On Saturday in Ponce, Culson dropped his PR by 0.27 seconds, down to 47.72. That time has been beaten only twice in the last three years, once each by Clement and Angelo Taylor. The event will be part of the adidas Grand Prix, the New York stop on the Diamond League circuit, on June 12. I'm looking forward to it.

The rich may get richer. Oregon already has a first-class track team year in and year out. One place where they're not terribly deep, though, is the sprints. This might change. At Saturday's Oregon Twilight meet, eight Oregon footballers ran sprints. Three were in the 100 and five in a special football-only 60 meter race. From Doug Binder's Oregonian article on the meet: “[Head football coach] Chip [Kelly] has stated his position many times. He wants to have the fastest team in football,” [track coach Vin] Lananna said. “That’s music to our ears because we want to have the fastest track team.” The Florida Gators can claim to have the fastest team right now...and guess who beat the Ducks for the NCAA Indoor championship?

Stephanie Brown Trafton may be coming back to earth. One of the few big overachievements for the US team at the 2008 Olympics was Brown Trafton's surprising gold medal in the discus. Last year she didn't do so well at the Worlds, finishing dead last in the final, and on Saturday she was thoroughly beaten in Osaka by World Champ Dani Samuels, finishing fourth. We may be forced to accept that SBT's 2008 season was a one-off success.

Usain Bolt continues to do the impossible. No, he didn't run this week, but he is doing something that may be more impressive than his sprinting exploits. In this week's Sports Illustrated, his image filled a full-page advertisement for Gatorade's new sports drink. One of sports' giants wants to use him to sell stuff. No kidding, right? But he's not American, he's not based in America, he rarely competes in America, is in a sport not popular in America, and is almost never on American television or in American media. And they're using him to sell to Americans. No one ever tried to sell to Americans using David Beckham or Ronaldo. Heck, they barely ever tried with Wayne Gretzky. Bolt has the power to do things for track that it could not do by itself.

More where that came from? At the Jamaican Primary Schools Championships, Raheem Chambers ran 11.98 for 100 meters. He's 12 years old and ran it into a significant headwind (3.8 m/s). The standard wind adjustment indicates it was worth 11.60 in still air. Age-group aces don't necessarily become world-beaters, but it's still jaw-dropping.

Pole vaulting is not for the weak of heart...or stomach. Indiana State's Kylie Hutson already had bagged the stadium record at Indiana's Billy Hayes Invitational when she shattered a pole into five or six pieces. She calmly grabbed another pole and made the height. She went up to 4.51 meters (14' 9 1/2") and made that, which is the currently the 2010 world outdoor leader. At 4.61 meters (15 1 1/2"), she broke her pole again. This time, however, she gashed her hand, was taken to the ER, and was given stitches both inside and outside. She will see a hand surgeon on Monday. And she's still listed as "questionable" rather than "out". Pic here.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Welcome to Michigan

I didn't have much to do this afternoon and decided to go to Ann Arbor aftercall. It's maybe 50 degrees with strong wind and spotty rain. Adam Harris is here and noted that it's not quite like Jamaica.

Even if the weather wasn't atrocious, I still think I'd be the only person here solely as a spectator. Everyone else has a personal connection to a competitor.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, May 07, 2010

Project 30 Watch List: Men's 10k

This is the second entry in an occasional series looking at prospects for fulfilling the goals of Project 30, the plan to win 30 medals at the 2012 Olympics.

Previously I had examined the men's hammer throw, and decided our only hope was Kibwe Johnson, and he's a long shot at that, probably 20-to-1.

In the wake of the recent American Record set by Chris Solinsky, I think it's appropriate to examine the men's 10,000 meters. We have a significantly better chance of winning a medal here, but I wouldn't say it's a good chance.

First, let's examine what a medalist is likely to bring to the table. The typical 10k medalist at World and Olympic competition this decade has been between 22 and 27 years old. The only athletes age 29 or older to have won a medal in this time period are Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. We may have some good runners, but we haven't got anyone like those two. So we either have to buck the trend (unlikely) or only conisder guys who are currently age 25 or younger. So we don't even have to wonder if Dathan Ritzenhein or Matt Tegenkamp will pursue the 10k at the 2012 Olympics, because they will be over the hill by then.

Usually, the race is run in such a way that only four to six athletes are still in contention with a lap or two to go, and the biggest kickers win the medals. So we need someone who can run a fast pace and who has a strong kick. For an American, to have a strong enough kick means he must have shown good 1500-meter form at some point in his career. For this reason I think we can eliminate Galen Rupp as a likely Olympic medalist. He simply isn't fast enough. He could win a medal in the way that Shalane Flanagan did, which is by not staying with the leaders and then eventually passing all but two who tried and died, but's that's a fairly unlikely scenario.

The runners in question need not be "full-time" 10k runners because most Olympic and World medalists aren't. They run mainly 3k and 5k races on the Grand Prix circuit, and move up to 10k just to make their national team and then for the championship race. Solinsky's record, coming in his first-ever run at the distance, shows there's little in the way of a learning curve. We need not exclude American runners who have not yet run many 10k races, if any at all.

So who do we have who is a) 25 or younger, b) has been good at both 1500 and 5k, and c) isn't afraid of the longer distances? Chris Solinsky, Evan Jager, and German Fernandez.

Now, there's another complicating factor. Most championship 10ks are run in very hot weather. This does not favor heavy runners, and by "heavy" I mean over about 140 pounds. Solinsky weighs in at significantly more than that, and Jager is listed at 145. It would seem that we're down to one contender. But that complicating factor may not be a big deal after all; London is not Beijing or Athens or Sydney. Late-evening August temperatures in London average in the 50s, and 40s wouldn't be terribly unusual. So the huge advantage African runners have by their extremely small size will probably be minimized at the 2012 Olympic, and those of the typically larger northern European lineage have a chance.

I'd still rate all three of these athletes as long-shots. It's not guaranteed that any of them will even try to make the Olympic team in the 10k, and Fernandez would still be in college (if he doesn't leave early for the pros). But I think any one of these three stand as good a chance as any runner who isn't from Ethiopia or Kenya (or an expatriate of the same). Each of them is about a 15-to-1 long shot, and combined that makes it maybe 5-to-1. Multiple medals is a virtual impossibility, but a single medal is a distinct possibility.

EDIT: I need to adjust those odds. Solinsky is 6 to 1, Fernandez and Jager both 25 to 1. But overall, it's still 5 to 1.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

What's On: The Weekend

The IAAF's Multi-Events (decathlon/heptathlon) Challenge kicks off for the year on Saturday and Sunday with the Multistars competition in Desanzano del Garda, Italy. Leading entries are #23 Jake Arnold of the USA and #9 Hanna Melnychenko of Ukraine.

The IAAF's World Challenge series comes to Japan on Saturday for the Osaka Grand Prix. Entered athletes in the top 20 in their events are as follows:
Men's 200m: #11 Mike Rodgers
Men's 400H: #5 Bershawn Jackson
Men's Shot: #1 Christian Cantwell and #9 Dan Taylor
Men's Hammer: #2Aleksey Zagorni and #4 Nicola Vizzoni
Men's Javelin: #6 Stuart Farquhar, #8 Ilya Korotkov, #14 Yukifumi Murakami and #15 Chris Hill
Women's 100m: #2 Veronica Campbell-Brown
Women's 100H: #4 Ginnie Powell, #5 Perdita Felicien
Women's Discus: #2 Dani Samuel, #4 Stephanie Brown-Trafton

The Ponce Grand Prix, arguably a better meet, will be held in Puerto Rico on Saturday. Top-20 athletes on the start lists:
Men's 100m: #13 Churandy Martina
Men's 200m: #16 Xavier Carter
Men's 400m: #3 Jeremy Wariner
Men's 110H: #3 David Oliver, #7 Dexter Faulk, #8 Dwight Thomas, #9 David Payne
Men's 400H: #2 Javier Culson, #7 Danny McFarlane, #8 Felix Sanchez, #10 Jehue Gordon
Women's 100m: #13 Gloria Asumnu, #18 Ruddy Zang Milama, #20 Lisa Barber
Women's 400m: #18 Natasha Hastings
Women's 800m: #9 Maggie Vessey
Women's 100H: #7 Damu Cherry, #16 Vonette Dixon, #18 Danielle Carruthers
Women's 400H: #8 Sheena Tosta, #15 Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, #19 Dominique Darden
Women's long jump: #5 Funmi Jimoh

The BIG 25 Berlin road race will be run on Sunday. As a 25k, I classify it as a "long distance" race. Mary Keitany is my #1-ranked runner in that category and she will be running.

The Fifth Third River Bank 25k, a stop on the USA Running Circuit, will be run on Saturday in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

College meets on tap for the weekend include the Oregon Twilight at Hayward Field in Eugene, the Sun Belt Conference championships at Fouts Field in Denton (TX), and the Heps (aka Ivy League) championships at Weaver Stadium in Princeton.

Issues Facing College Track, Part 2

Part 1 of my series introduced the idea that college track suffers because its regular season has no inherent meaning. We have six or seven weeks of this before anything that matters (the conference championships in May), by which time the interest of the media and the public have long been lost.

I also introduced the idea of a mix of automatic and at-large qualifiers to the NCAA Championships based in part on regular-season competitive record. This is not a new idea; in fact, it’s exactly how we choose teams which qualify to the nationals for cross country. I find it very ironic that XC, possibly the least fan-friendly sport in the NCAA, has a more compelling season than the stadium-oriented sport of outdoor track.

While this proposal would make individual races throughout the month of April more meaningful and therefore more interesting, it does not address the issue of college track meets as a whole. Whereas compelling sporting competitions are narratives, and each small occurrence has its part in a larger picture, college track meets are generally just a bunch of stuff that happens. There isn't any larger picture.

Read the web press releases put out by grad assistant SIDs on Mondays. The headlines say things like “Wildcats Run Well Over Weekend” and “Bulldogs Get Qualifiers”. Did they win? Did they lose? These are the fundamental questions of sports. College track and field is, with very few exceptions, completely indifferent to these questions. This is because we almost never keep score at meets, so there aren’t any winners or losers. We de-emphasize the team aspect of the sport, and so no one pays attention.

Take this weekend as an example. I live 40 minutes from Michigan’s Ferry Field, which will host the Len Paddock Invitational on Saturday. I have no intention of going. I have never wanted to go. There is nothing of any meaning to see. And I live and breathe track and field. If I’m not interested, no one is interested. This is a Big Ten school and a major one at that; the Wolverines are used to commanding the full attention of the state in almost every sport, but with track they blithely accept anonymity. This is how it is for at least nine out of ten D-I track meets. Unless something changes, track will be permanently relegated to third-class status at the 99% of colleges which aren’t perennially in the running for an NCAA championship.

So what would get some attention? What would drive interest? Well, let’s look at where there already is some media interest in track: high schools. Your local newspaper probably does have decent coverage of high school track, or at least decent in comparison to how they cover college track. Now you might say “Of course they cover high schools a whole lot more because it’s local sports.” Really? How’s the balance of college football coverage versus high school football? College basketball versus high school basketball? High schools might still get more coverage, but not by much. This is the balance we should be seeking with college track, a balance where the Wolverine track team gets nearly as much coverage in Michigan newspapers as the local high school teams do.

High schools always keep team scores, and there's always a winner. Check the headlines on high school track and you'll see they always say who won. Team scores build a story; each individual event is important in a larger context. The team aspect is what makes young men and women go beyond their limits; I remember running myself to the edge of blacking out just to try to tie up a meet. That the team is more important than the individual is the essential element of almost every sport. We willfully cast that aside and it, more than anything else, has been our downfall.

If we don’t give the media headlines like “Michigan Wins Paddock Invite” or “Michigan Second at Owens Classic”, they won’t pay attention. (They might not pay attention anyway, but that’s the status quo, which is unacceptable.) As for my interest, if the crosstown Eastern Michigan Eagles were running at Michigan’s Paddock Invite with the possibility of actually beating the Wolverines, I would absolutely be there to see it. That’s a sporting contest. Without team scoring, though, this Saturday’s meet will be little more than a glorified practice session.

To sum up: the team aspect of college track is paramount to its success. That can only be done at relay carnivals, which are nice but ultimately only a once or twice a year diversion, or at meets that keep team scores. So we must find a way to not only force meets to be scored, but to force coaches to think those scores are important. I’ll float a few ideas on this in Part 3.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Your Track Vault Pick of the Week

With the Oregon Twilight meet coming up this weekend, here's a 1975 SI article on Eugene and its love affair with track and running.
No matter what they tell you, Oregon has days of sunshine. The temperature will rise into the high 90s and the Willamette River will fill with black inner tubes and thrashing, splashing humans. And then Eugene's runners-joggers (maybe 10,000 of us out of a population of 90,000) take their exercise early in the morning or in the long twilight.

Issues Facing College Track, Part 1

Last week it was announced that the NCAA's basketball tournament would be expanding from 65 teams to 68. The NCAA had toyed with the idea of going to 96 teams, and the public hadn't warmed to the idea. The general criticism was that college basketball's regular season, already without much importance, would be de-emphasized even more. Preserving the importance of the regular season is also one of the reasons often cited in opposition to a college football playoff.

In contrast, college track's regular season is not largely meaningless. It is totally meaningless. The six weeks stretching from late March to the first week of May accomplish only two things: getting qualifiers to the championship meets, and prepping for them. The entire thing is little more than a bunch of high-quality practice sessions, because nothing is really on the line. No one stands to win anything but a fast time, and no one stands to lose anything at all. In light of this, the attendance numbers at the Penn, Drake, Texas, and Kansas Relays are remarkable.

The regionals system for qualifying to the NCAA championships, instituted in 2003, has only had a marginal effect on the boredom of the regular season. Dual meets are scheduled slightly more often than they used to be, partly because of the reduced pressure to get big marks. However, regionals still don't address the problem: the regular season still has no inherent meaning. This year's switch to a two-regional system has been called a "secret plan" to kill the whole qualify-through-competition setup by the (powerful) minority of coaches who don't like it, but I don't think there's any secret about it.

So would the death of the regional system have any appreciable effect on the spectator appeal of college track? No. When regional championships were put into place, they were considered perfect for TV. But in eight years, not a single one of them has ever appeared on the tube. And they still backload the importance of what happens to the end of the season. No, the presence or absence of regionals does not, in the big picture, make any difference.

It's been said that the NCAA likes the idea of qualifying via conference championships, but that's problematic. Currently we take 24 athletes in each event to the national championships, but there are 30 or so conferences. And as with most sports, the champions of most conferences are, by any reasonable assessment, inferior to the top half-dozen in a few conferences.

I'm amazed that the committees which come up with college track policy haven't done what committees do best, namely take a "split the baby" approach. I've got such a plan, and I think it would satisfy everyone and make for a more meaningful regular season.

The 24 nationals qualifiers in each event would be come from three groups.
*The top eight conference champions from the national descending-order list qualify.
*The next eight athletes on the national descending-order list also qualify.
* Eight at-large berths would be chosen by a committee based on the athletes' competitive record against each other and the sixteen athletes above.

The first grouping enhances the importance conference championships, and also guarantees access to nationals for second-tier conferences. For example, last year's men's 100m conference meet auto-qualifiers would have been the champions of the traditional power conferences of the SEC, ACC, Pac-10, Big 12 and Big Ten, but also the not-so-powerful Ohio Valley, MEAC and Sun Belt. For the men's 1500, champions of the Big East, Big Sky and Big West would have joined the five power-conference champions.

The second group satisfies the statheads and the top coaches, who generally prefer qualifying via marks. It would be virtually impossible for anyone in the top twelve to fourteen athletes on the descending-order list to fail to qualify to the NCAA meet.

The third grouping is where I think something new comes into play, qualifying via competitive record rather than by time. Actually, it's nto that new. It's how we choose the thirteen at-large berths for the NCAA Cross Country Championships. In that sport, the regular season does mean something, albeit not as much as the end of the season. And that's how things should be. As it is right now, a middle-distance guy would much rather run 3:40 and lose than run 3:44 and win. That's our problem--if it's not fast, it's not meaningful. Every competition between quality athletes should have meaning, and under my system it would. Because in the middle of April, we don't yet know who the sixteen auto-qualifiers will be, so everyone has to run like they're going to need an at-large berth. That makes winning at least as important as running fast, and that's interesting.

So far, I've addressed the individual aspect of the sport. But to gain the attention of the public, and to get fans to show up to meets, it is essential that we spend even more effort reforming the team aspect of college track & field. More on that later.

College Team Rankings, Week #4

EDIT: Women now ranked.

A reminder that these rankings are based primarily on results of scored meets, with outdoor track being of greater importance than indoor track, and secondly on marks.

Women's rankings will be ready tomorrow.

Since the last rankings two weeks ago, the major results have been Southern Cal easily beating UCLA, Arizona State beating Arizona and Northern Arizona, Nebraska beating Texas Tech, and Washington State spanking Washington.

No ranked teams are in scored-meet action this week. The week after that is virtually everyone's conference championship week.

1. Florida
2. Oregon
3. Texas A&M
4. Southern California
5. LSU
6. Oklahoma
7. Stanford
8. Georgia
9. Arizona State
10. Florida State
11. Nebraska
12. Texas
13. UCLA
14. Texas Tech
15. Arkansas
16. Baylor
17. BYU
18. Mississippi State
19. California
20. Mississippi
21. Minnesota
22. Washington State
23. Alabama
24. Auburn
25. South Carolina

Last week saw a mild upset when Nebraska won at Texas Tech. Other scored-meet results:Southern Cal beat UCLA, Arizona beat Arizona State and Northern Arizona, and Washington State beat Washington.
1. Oregon
2. Texas A&M
3. LSU
4. Florida
5. Clemson
6. Tennessee
7. BYU
8. Arkansas
9. Southern California
10. Arizona
11. Nebraska
12. Texas Tech
13. Kansas
14. Oklahoma
15. California
16. Texas
17. Arizona State
18. Stanford
19. Iowa State
20. Florida State
21. Penn State
22. Minnesota
23. North Carolina
24. Washington State
25. UCLA

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Dance Into May. Yesterday was May 1, which is a holiday in many parts of the world. In Germany, there's Walpurgisnacht and maypole dancing, and the Celtic festival of Beltane is still known in the British Isles. But I'm not German and I'm certainly not a neo-pagan. It's also International Worker's Day, and while I'm a proud member of the AFL-CIO and wish our president was the socialist some people describe him as, our Labor Day is in September.

But I do spend an awful lot of time outdoors, and long ago I knew why May Day was a big deal. In the north, it's the point at which the weather becomes pleasant more often than not. And on May 1, the 2010 outdoor track season began in earnest. Four college duals, a half a dozen conference championships, four major collegiate invitationals, and two big-time pro meets in the Carribean. It starts now.

White guys can run. Both Americans and Europeans knew this 25 years ago, but seem to have forgotten it until last year. Now another US distance-running breakthrough. I woke up this morning and immediately checked the results of the Cardinal Invitational 10k to see if Galen Rupp was successful in his attempt to break the 10,000 meter American Record. He did, sort of.

Track and Field Videos on Flotrack

Rupp ran faster than the 27:13.98 target. And he was eleven seconds behind Chris Solinsky's new record of 26:59.60. So between the end of last year and the beginning of this one, the Oregon Track Club has produced two guys under 13:00 and two more different guys under 27:11. And these are not all being trained by the same coach. We have depth, and it's only going to get better.

Americans are still too hard-headed. Solinsky's comments after his record, the first track 10k he's ever run? "I'm still a 5k guy." No, you're not, numbskull. You are a distance runner, and a professional athlete, and that means you do what it takes to rise to the top of your profession. You lack the sense to understand you just did that. The best comparison would be Cal Ripken still insisting in 1982 that he was really still a third baseman. You just ran a time that puts you in the realm of the very best in the world, and more importantly, you ran it off a sit-and-kick style. Your last two laps were in 60.1 and 56.1 seconds, meaning you have what it takes to win an Olympic medal in the 10,000 meters. No one can win a medal in the 5k without finishing speed in the class of Bernard Lagat, which you do not possess. No one runs the 10k to the exclusion of all other distances, and you won't either, but it's where the hardware is available.

Bolt is the man. He just started up his season and really isn't into high gear. He ran the fourth-best 200 of all time and left the third-best half-lapper in the world a nearly half a second behind. Watch here. And the very next day during network pro golf coverage, his smiling mug was heavily promoting Jamaica track and field, on someone else's dime. There has never been someone so good for track, or needed so badly.

Flotrack is still learning. They came to Westwood to cover the USC-UCLA dual meet and worked hard at it. But some of the camera work wasn't the best, and they missed out on the best announcer available. It sure sounded like Scott Davis was working the PA at Ducky Drake Stadium, and was doing his usual fine job of directing the attention of the fans to the various rings of the circus. When someone like Davis is working, you cut out the talking heads and plug in to the PA system. It would be like talking over Vin Scully or Keith Jackson. Your guys only need speak during down time.

Track gets much-needed reassurance. On Tuesday, the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations rejected calls by FINA, swimming's international governing body, to change the formula for distributing the projected $375 million in TV revenues. The IAAF will, as in the past, get nearly twice as much money ($35.77 million) as any other IGB. FINA head Julio Maglione cited strong TV ratings and packed crowds in Beijing

While I can't blame Maglione for trying, as he'd be derelict in his duties if he didn't, swimming just doesn't measure up. Track can get 1 million viewers in more countries than swimming can get athletes to qualify to the Olympics. The men's 100 meters final was the second most-watched sporting event of 2008, beating out soccer championship games in the UEFA and Champions leagues, while swimming didn't get in the top ten. Swimming has only one mass-participation event that even remotely compares to any of at least fifty road races around the world. We are king of the traditional Olympic sports.