The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

Ryan Hall just now learned that fame is a bitch.  He had been signed up for the Chicago Marathon and was talking up an American Record attempt but on Tuesday he announced his withdrawal, citing lack of readiness after an awful run at the Philadelphis Half Marathon.  The peanut gallery at Let's Run (predictably) savaged him, he used Twitter to defend himself from critics, and both Phil Hersh and Joe Battaglia were less than complimentary.

Is the highest level of marathoning among the most difficult and fickle ways to make a living?  Do bodies and minds need periodic breaks?  Yes and yes.  Is Hall's criticism unreasonable?  Maybe, maybe not.

See, if you're a professional athlete you depend on fans.  No fans, no income.  This is especially true for sports like marathoning, where there are no "gate receipts" and every single cent comes from sponsors.  In that case you'd better have a positive public image.  Michael Vick isn't on Nissan ads, but Ryan Hall is.

If your sports' fan base is sufficiently broad, it's a given that the majority of fans are relatively ignorant of the mechanics of your sport.  For example, the majority of NFL fans not only haven't played college ball but probably didn't even play high school ball, and they certainly don't spend an hour every week watching Ron Jaworski break down film.  You simply can't have a big fan base and have all the discussion be insightful and intelligent.  Thus the stupidity of sports talk radio.  Let's Run's message board is the distance running equivalent of sports talk radio.

American long-distance running fans have been waiting for a champion to come along for a generation, someone who can go out and win the biggest races.  In the 1990s we thought we'd say "Oh look, Godot's here!" before it happened. Then we had Mark Plaatjes and Khalid Khannouchi, but their change of national allegiances felt so mercenary.  And neither came through the US system of high schools and colleges, making the rest of us think that maybe success was impossible for those who did.

When Hall burst out in January 2007 with an amazing solo run for a half marathon American Record, the wait seemed to be over.  He followed that with the fastest ever marathon debut by an American, and another amazing solo run at the Olympic Trials.  And then a 2:06 in London in which he made a mistake or two (and knew what they were before he crossed the line).  It looked like we had the Next Big Thing.

And since then we've had four straight marathons where fans felt like he really didn't lay it all on the line.  In some he incessantly checked his watch, as if he cared more about time than about racing.  It's probably not a fair assessment.  But remember, image is everything for a professional athlete who depends on the goodwill of the public.  His racing seasons have shrunk to fewer and fewer races (and some were marathon tuneups where we got to see were glorified training runs rather than bona fide competitions).  For two summers he's promised to race on the track and then backed out.  His fans feel like English football fans, whose national teams have underperformed while stocked with great talent.  Maybe our expectations as fans are too high, but we at least want to feel like winning and losing are as important to them as it is to us.

That Hall wears his religion on his sleeve turns off some people, but not me.  He's genuine.  (Some around him are not, and I figured that out within two minutes of talking to them.)  But his genuineness is part of the package that makes some people think he's a flake.  People don't talk about religion in polite company because it's part of social mores.  Hall is a bit oblivious to that, and  also to how his incessant blogging and twittering and so forth make people look at him like Terrell Owens...but with a few questions about competitive fire.  So his being raked over the coals can easily be explained by Matthew 26:52 and Job 1:21.  Maybe he could look into those.

Cal is keeping its track programs.  Cal's athletic department has been running a big deficit for several years, a problem exacerbated by California's budget crisis.  The Bears had 29 varsity sports, an unusually large number even for a BCS school.  So word came down a few weeks back that some teams were going to be cut.  Those cuts were announced this week and miraculously track and/or cross country were not among them, but baseball was instead.  Sports Illustrated ran an excellent story covering the problems inherent in the system.

Note to track people: It should never have been close.  Cal has a track resource unmatched by any institution save Oregon, but it lies largely unused.  I'm talking about Edwards Stadium, a 22,000-seat track-specific facility capable of hosting anything short of an Olympics or World Championships.  It even has two things Hayward Field does not have: an in-stadium hammer ring and a nearby full-size warmup facility (at Berkeley High School).  In the past it sold out for NCAA Championships and the USA versus USSR meets.  Yet since 1978 it has not hosted anything bigger than its once-a-decade turn at the Pac-10 Championships.  An Olympic Trials or similar meet would bring more attention to Cal and more people onto its campus than any sport save football and basketball, which would render track and field virtually impervious to cuts. 

You got yourself a nice track?  Use it.  Host meets.  Get lots of spectators there even if you have to offer free pizza.  Bid on major championships.  Because if you don't, you make people in the AD's office think either you don't care or you don't matter or both.

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