How things stack up for the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Nine regional meets were held yesterday to determine the qualifiers, with the top two teams automatically qualifying with another thirteen teams receiving at-large bids. The results of those meets told us a little, but not a lot.
Of the top seven men's teams in the national poll, five lost yesterday. #1 Oklahoma State, #2 Stanford, #4 Iona and #6 Florida State all were second in their respective regions. To the casual observer, this would be stunning and he would figure upsets are coming next week. But remember, the top two automatically advance. In the bigger picture, these were favorites breezing through the qualifying rounds. Some, like Stanford, consciously held back. Others, like Oklahoma State, rested some of their top runners.
Who were the exceptions, and why? #3 Oregon won the West region almost by default. Stanford handed it to them. The Ducks, however, couldn't hold back as much; finishing third would have meant relying on an at-large bid. They almost assuredly would have gotten it, but the #3 team in the country wants a sure thing.
#7 Northern Arizona was fourth in the Mountain region. This made them, according to Flotrack, the 28th qualifier out of the 31 teams. (The official NCAA announcement makes no such distinctions.) While on paper they're an outside contender for the championship, this is not how they wanted to get to the championship meet. It's not a good sign.
#5 Wisconsin held back and still won the Great Lakes region, whupping #12 Indiana in the process. This is a very good sign. If anyone can knock off the two overwhelming favorites, Oklahoma State and Stanford, the Badgers are the team that could do it. That's a huge "if", but stranger things have happened at the NCAA Championships. Back in 2006 the Badgers themselves were supposed to be the unbeatable team, but Colorado ended up winning by 48 points on a come-from-behind victory.
One the women's side, things aren't as complicated. The difference between the top teams and everyone else is so much greater, and the 6k distance so much shorter, that the best teams typically won either because they didn't hold back as much or because they did and still were good enough to win. The biggest surprise was in the West region, where #11 Washington upset #7 Oregon and #4 Stanford. It's not that much of a surprise, though, as the Huskies recently returned some of their top runners from injury. They have to be considered a serious contender for one of the four trophies, if not for the title.
Simon Bairu could have been in one of those Benny Hill sped-up film sequences. The Canadian 10k record holder ran his rookie marathon in New York last week, and didn't take care of his fluid and energy needs. He passed out late in the race, an ambulance was called, and he was loaded in. But the ambulance almost immediately ran into a taxi, the drivers and vehicle couldn't leave the scene of the accident, and another ambulance had to be called. Cue the Yakety Sax.
The Richmond Spiders are the Hickory High of cross country...no, the Rocky...I dunno. Going into yesterday's Southeast regional race, the deepest in the country, the Spiders men's cross country team was not considered a contender. They didn't get a single vote in the national poll and were eighth in the regional poll. They pulled out a fourth place and punched their ticket to the NCAA championships.
This isn't terribly unusual; this kind of thing happens nearly every year. How they did it is more unusual. In the Kolas calculator for selecting at-large bids, the Spiders had zero points. This means that all year they didn't beat a single team that had already been selected to the big dance. They got in by dint of beating three nationally-ranked teams who did have the necessary points, known as a "push".
This is commendable, but hardly unprecedented. The circumstances may be, though. Richmond's scholarship budget for their men's team is zero. Nada. Zilch. And they're going to the national championships. They're not even like Princeton and other Ivies, which nominally give no scholarships but have a big name and barrels of money. To Coach Steve Taylor and his band of walk-ons, we give you a big Superfan saa-lute!
We track fans are not alone. The following e-mail led off a Sports Illustrated writer's column this week:
It seems like there's been a lot of ...space devoted to the question of how we can get [sport] to be more mainstream and popular. My response is, what exactly do I have to gain by the attainment of this goal? I no longer feel alone as a [sport] obsessive, thanks to the blogosphere, and that tends to leave me a little, shall we say, confused about my fellow fans. I kind of like thinking that [sport] is beloved by a narrow set of particularly thoughtful, quirky, creative types -- the kind of people who like to travel and read David Foster Wallace and [SI writer]. ...I guess if [sport] were more popular, there would be more [television coverage]. That would be nice, but it seems like the growth of Internet video is rapidly taking care of that problem. In the meantime, I'm content to inhabit the margins of the sports world, suspecting that the middle is not all it's cracked up to be.The writer is Jon Wertheim, and the sport is tennis. You can easily put "track" or "road running" in the blanks and the paragraph would describe the situation our sports are in. I can be plugged in nearly 24-7 (and sometimes I'm accused of it).
Wertheim agreed on several levels, comparing his sport to a favorite indie band whose modest popularity doesn't inhibit his access. He also offered a counterargument about the problems caused by diminished popularity:
It's tough to see good tournaments run by good people struggle or go out of business. It's no fun to suffer abuse at the hands of networks, who treat tennis so shabbily but then demand to see higher ratings before, say, broadcast the U.S. Open final on one channel. It stinks to see friends lose jobs or entrepreneurs fail to make a living or, in my case, the media room consistently downsized. Small is OK, but here's a worst case scenario: tennis becomes so niche that the economic incentives disappear and tennis can no longer lure the top athletes. Then we've really got problems. (See: boxing.)Again, you can easily replace "tennis" with "track" or "road running". And I fear the professional level of track really is disappearing from the USA at the invitational level, and from Europe at the championship level. Then we've really got problems.
Kenyans and Ethiopians are not invincible. In every one of the more than 40 major open marathons this year, the men's winner was either Kenyan or Ethiopian. Until today, when Italy’s Ruggero Pertile won the Turin Marathon, defeating eight east Africans in the process.