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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

For the uninitiated, this is my weekly track-oriented version of "Monday-morning quarterbacking".

What did we learn this week?

The real story is getting out.  Earlier this week, the University of Delaware announced that it will demote its track and cross country teams from varsity to club status.  UD cited Title IX for cutting the teams.  There were the usual responses--blaming women for the downfall of man, etc--and my usual harping that Title IX had nothing to do with it and the excesses of football are the real cause.  Something different happened this time, though; at least a few people agreed with me.  And some independently.

Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman explained the imbalance between track and football:
The University of Delaware's football team recently wrapped up its season with 103 players on its roster. That includes four quarterbacks, 10 running backs, 14 wide receivers, 16 defensive backs and four kickers. As a proud graduate of the school, this makes me immensely happy. It was, after all, Winston Churchill who once said, "Life without a 16th defensive back is no life at all."
He went on to explain that there were essentially no savings to be had from the tiny and little-funded track team, but called the football team "a giant money suck" and suggested the real reasons behind the demise of the track program may not have been the ones cited by the AD.  It's like he read my playbook.  But he didn't.  We sound the same because we're telling the truth.
Pearlman's name might ring a bell.  He has written four books, one of which was a best-seller, and wrote the infamous John Rocker interview for SI.  So he's well-known, as as an SI columnist he's well followed.  His rant may have singlehandedly changed the perception of these kinds of athletic cuts.  I wouldn't be surprised if local beat writers start asking probing questions when an AD announces the death of track, swimming, soccer, or some other team.  Good on ya!

Dual meets get attention.  The highly-anticipated dual meet showdown between the top-rated teams from LSU and Texas A&M turned out to be a bit of a dud, as the Aggies swept the competition.  The women's competition was a rout and the men's winner was already determined before either of the final two events began.  But how it happened isn't nearly as important as how it was reported--or, at least how it was reported ahead of time. never writes about track.  The only track stories you'll ever see on their website are from the Associated Press, plus the occasional human-interest story (example: Edison Pena).  And they especially never write about college track.  But on Friday there was a preview of the meet at, written by Mechelle Voepel.  Her beat is women's basketball plus wrestling, swimming, soccer, and a bunch of other college sports that don't get much attention.  That her article about track was notable by its mere existence tells you everything you need to know about our sports' place in the media pecking order.

The other notes at the bottom of the article let us know at least one reason why this is true.  They all noted wins and losses in other various sports; upsets of the #1-ranked wrestling and hockey teams, a win by the top-ranked tennis team.  We don't do "wins and losses" in track.  We need to.

Ashton Eaton has stepped it up.  The recent Oregon grad broke the heptathlon world record last winter.  But his ability in the three throwing events is masked by the difference between the outdoor decathlon and the indoor heptathlon, as the latter doesn't include the javelin or discus.  Eaton is great at the running and jumping events.  But on a Trackfocus podcast last fall, former Olympic champion Mac Wilkins said I was being charitable by merely saying that Eaton had a lot of room to improve in the throws.

Eaton used this weekend's Princeton Relays as a tune-up meet for next week's Millrose Games.  On Friday night he added 42 inches to his lifetime best in the shot put.  Not only does this mean he's significantly improved his shot put skills, it suggests he may be able to do the same in the long throws as well.

Of course, he could have sacrificed training time in other events in order to improve in the throws, and possibly backslid in them.  So it was especially nice to see him run to a big PR in the 60 meter hurdles the next day, recording 7.68.  That's fast.  How fast?  It would have put him sixth at last year's NCAA championship, and suggests he might be able to run the 110 hurdles in 13.30-13.35 or so.

I thought it would take the 18 months between now and the London Olympics for Eaton to develop into a contender for the gold medal.  He's probably not the world's best quite yet, but he appears to be approaching it ahead of schedule.

Scored meets are on the rise.  Besides the meet at College Station, there were scored meets this weekend featuring major-conference teams at Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue, Boise State, Washington State, Minnesota and Maryland--but no one really seems to care that, for example, Illinois beat Wisconsin.  It's not important to the coaches to go after the wins.

Yeah, I know this is contradictory to my second item in this column.  But the media is a quite different thing than the coaches.  When, a week ago, Indiana coach Ron Helmer said he didn't care if he beat Purdue, that was both a very bad thing to circulate in the IU press (as it told fans there was no reason to show up and watch), and also a very telling thing about college track in general.

Helmer would never say he didn't care about beating Pudue during cross country season.  If they did lose, it would really hurt his team's chances at making it to the NCAA Championships due to the qualifying system.  Cross country, with its inability to rely on descending-order lists and partial teams, uses wins and losses alone to determine its nationals qualifiers.  As a result, it has a relevant regular season.  It gets a decent following and is compelling.  Track and field would be wise to consider how to become more like cross country. 

The London Olympic Stadium brouhaha was unplanned.  As you may or may not know, the London 2012 Olympic bid was won in no small part because organizers promised to retain the stadium and its track as a permanent "athletics legacy", allowing top-level track competitions to be held in London.  Currently, there is no world-class athletics stadium in the entire United Kingdom.

But later, the British government said it would not be able to afford the stadium, and would sell it off.  Two bidders are in the running, the Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham football clubs.  Tottenham's plans would eliminate the track.  The reaction in the international sports world has been about as strong a condemnation as you get in that sphere.

Former BBC sports editor Mihir Bose suggested today that the reason the whole thing has come about was because the responsible people in the government, such as then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, didn't even look at the financial realities of the bid because they were convinced that London couldn't win.

Of course, London did win.  The ironic thing is that if they'd done their duty, and examined the financial aspects, then the "athletics legacy" part of the London bid wouldn't have been given the green light.  And London would have lost to Paris, just like they thought (which is why they gave it the green light).  Around and around we go.

What does Paris have that London doesn't have?  A stadium.  A great stadium, the most well-thought-out multipurpose stadium in the world.  One that hosts both top-level football and top-level track, because of a hydraulic system that moves lower levels forward towards the pitch for football, and back to reveal the track for athletics.  The London organizers insisted that such a system be part of the new Olympic stadium, but the government would not spend the money.  So here they are, with the worst fate an Englishman can suffer: the French laughing at him.  Because they really were the superior bid, only Seb Coe didn't know it.

Indoor track in North America is growing.  While the US circuit was once the center of indoor track, it's almost completely gone.  We are now down to two pro-level meets, from a decades-ago high of more than two dozen.  We very nearly lost one of those last two this year, when Reebok backed out of sponsoring the Boston Indoor Games.  Only a brave move by New Balance to come in a the title sponsor kept it from going kaput.

Canada hasn't had a relevant major indoor invitational for nearly two decades; the last of them was the Hamilton Spectator Games.  This winter there will be a new one, though, the Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome Indoor Track Classic on March 12.  Part of the 2010 Olympic legacy in Vancouver is a top-level facility that has been redesigned to include a track.

Whether this will be a truly "world class" event is hard to say.  But the timing may be right, as it's right at the end of the indoor season.  It will be on the weekend following the European Championships, meaning the European season for Canadian and American pros will be over by then.  If they come home between the winter and summer seasons, they would be available.

Track people live a long time.  At this weekend's Simmons-Harvey Invitational, the University of Michigan honored former coach Red Simmons and longtime area official Kermit Ambrose.  1700 fans came out to wish them happy birthday; Simmons is 100 and Ambrose is 101.

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