The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

I don't know what I'm talking about. Last week I speculated about the inclusion of Britain's Mo Farah in Alberto Salazar's Portland-based training group.  Originally known as the Oregon Project and dedicated to taking American distance running to a higher competitive level,  I thought that including a foreigner might be OK because that goal has been accomplished and anyway no one calls it the Oregon Project anymore.  And I thought Farah had a Nike contract.

All I have to do is open my mouth and I'm wrong.   Two days later Salazar comes out and says his group of six athletes is to be known once again as the Oregon Project and no longer is under the umbrella of the Oregon Track Club.  Farah makes seven, but he's not officially a member of the group.  Even though he (sometimes) trains with them and is coached by Salazar.  Salazar told The Oregonian's Ken Goe that "Mo Farah has no contract with Nike. I am coaching him. That's all I can say right now."

So, to be clear: If I speculate about something, assume the opposite to be true. Call it the George Costanza rule.

The real truth is that I am not a reporter.  I'm a self-appointed bigmouth with a blog.  I read a lot and analyze what I read, but I don't have the opportunity to ask questions.  So when I speculate, it's a stretch and sometimes a stretch too far.

Turning to speculation, does the Salazar-OP/Schumaker-OTC split mean anything?  Probably nothing more than a differentiation of two groups who are different.  That and message board fodder for comparisons to Hulk Hogan's nWo split from WCW back in the 90s, with Salazar's now black-jerseyed squad playing the role of the heels.  How else was Galen Rupp going get people to stop thinking of him as a babyface?

USATF is frustrating.  I know USATF people read this space at least every now and then, so I'll be constructive.  But, like Steven Colbert, I buy my outrage in bulk.  And the webcast and telecast of the USATF Indoor Championship deserves an entire skid of it, delivered with my angriest forklift.

Basically, it boils down to this:  There are people at USATF who care, and there are those who don't.  But even the people who care are clueless.  They literally haven't the foggiest idea of what a sports fan wants, or even why they should be interested.

The first-ever webcast of the USAF Indoor Championships was tremendously disappointing.  The first thing that didn't go well was right at the beginning.  The start time on Saturday had been announced as 6:00 but got pushed back to 6:30--unfortunately, word didn't get out about that too well.  So people who tried to start watching at the advertised time were left with nothing, wondering what happened.

The worst part was the video quality.  It was very choppy, probably due to an insufficient internet connection at the Albuquerque Convention Center.  This could have and should have been checked ahead of time.

At first, the production and announcing could only be described as amateur hour.  It quickly got better, but anyone who came in at the beginning would have been turned off by it.  The problem was that with the exception of Dan O'Brien, the people on the microphone had little to no experience announcing.  There were fantastic announcers already working the meet--the PA announcers, including a man who has worked the Worlds and Olympics (Garry Hill).  All that had to be done was to tap into that audio feed, which also  would have fixed the problem of seeing postrace interviews but not hearing them.

I will give John Godina major props for two things: quickly getting serious after a goofy start, and really working at getting us info on the field events as they happened.  On the whole, he is more of an asset than a liability as an announcer.  But an announcer should be chosen by their ability to announce, not their status as a once-outstanding athlete or by their connections.

The whole thing had a bit of a feel of a private club function, not a something dedicated to entertaining, informing and attracting the masses.  And then there was the TV broadcast, which had me tweeting things like "Dear USATF and ESPN: You suck."

It was the usual hodgepodge of races, breathless postrace interviews,  and a complete and utter lack of respect for the viewer.  The sport is called track AND FIELD, yet as always the field events were mistreated in a way that makes me want to send big Dan Taylor a few bucks to go up to Indy and plant some fools on their heads.

There were two things that sent me over the edge into rage.  The first was just plain ridiculous.  They did not show the men's mile.  At all.  They showed some tape of the men's 3k from the night before instead.  It's not as if there isn't a huge amount of wasted time in this or any other TV broadcast, where they could have stuck that clip and still been able to show the mile.  There were no "names" in the men's mile, but it was still a close and exciting finish and would have added much to the experience of the viewer.  Like me.

The second was the usual disrespect of the field events taken to another level.  As I note below, Jillian Camarena-Williams had a huge breakthrough for an American Record in the shot put.  It briefly put her in the running for the overall VISA Championship Series $25,000 payday.  Since it happened in the morning, it should have been noted near the top of the broadcast, but they waited until the usual late-portion "here are the winning efforts" bullshit.  You can bet that if any running-event athlete had broken a 24-year-old American Record, the whole crew would have been sniffing their jock for the whole show plus at least the next year.

Remember, when I'm writing this, I'm trying to be nice.  I'm not being as forthcoming with my outrage as I want to be.  I'll say this, though: In terms of being able to compete with other sports for the attention of the public, USATF doesn't bring a knife to a gunfight.  They bring silly string.

Webcast of the week award: SEC.  Free via RazorVision, good video, tied into the PA announcer so we got play-by-play from someone experienced at doing it.  The runner-up award goes to the ACC.

Random thought of the week.  This takes a while to develop, but stay with me.

Uniforms are always kind of a problem in track and field, especially on the pro circuit of one-day invitationals.  It's hard to look out at the pack on runners on the TV screen (or, increasingly, computer monitor) and say "Hey, that's my guy".  Too many outfits are similar, and they don't even stay the same from year to year, let alone week to week.  In an individual sport, it hurts a lot for athletes to be indistinguishable from each other.  The worst offense I can think of was the Pre Classic a year or two ago, when the entire field in the women's 1500 wore identical yellow LiveStrong jerseys.

In team sports you immediately know which team someone is on.  Yankees, Arsenal, Packers, you know them the moment you see them.  In individual sports, you either have athletes competing one at a time (golf, winter sports) or one-on-one (boxing, tennis) which makes it easy to know who is who, or the athletes are easily identified from a distance (motor sports such as NASCAR).

Not so with track.  We have a lot of people running at once, often with long camera angles, and like I said above we have so many uniforms that look alike.  The biggest reason we have a problem is that so many athletes all have the same sponsors.

What we really need are ways to make individual athletes readily identifiable, but doing it by way of jerseys isn't practical. There are so many athletes that you couldn't possibly require each to have an individualized jersey.  And sponsors need to get out their particular message--such as those LiveStrong jerseys I mentioned above--and you have to keep the sponsors happy because without them the sport basically doesn't exist.  What to do?

Only one other sport faces the problem we do, where many athletes are competing in a tightly-bunched group, seen from a distance, and some of whom few viewers have never seen before. I'm talking about horse racing.  What do they do?  They color-code the saddlecloths, their equivalent of our bib numbers.  And they use those colors to their advantage, by placing them in running order at the bottom of TV (and computer) screens.

In the various international and domestic series of one-day invitationals, we need to color-code bib numbers and have athletes wear them front and back.  Match the colors on the on-screen start lists and on the results.  During races, have swatches of these colors with the athletes' names in them at the bottom of the screen, and rearrange their order as the runners pass each other.  (BTW, this would REALLY add to the 400, where only experts know who's ahead when the runners are on the backstretch.)

Simple.  Easy.  Doesn't step on any sponsors' toes, and adds to the viewing experience.

Ohio State has made the biggest turnaround in college track.  Track and field has never really been a big deal at Ohio State.  For a university with its resources, for a long time the men's team hasn't done much.  It has a grand total of four Big Ten outdoor track titles in 97 tries is remarkably futile.  Back in 1988 the Buckeyes decided it was a good idea to hire Russ Rogers, who had just made a name for himself as the Olympic sprint coach who got into disagreements with his relay team and was accused by Joe Douglas and Dennis Mitchell of threatening athletes with exclusion from the relay if they did not allow him to be their agent, and ultimately presided over a relay team that did not get the baton around the track in the semis.  I quipped at the time "Dishonest?  Incompetent?  Only care about money?  You're our man!"

Track had been OK, but cross country was just plain bad until Robert Gary took over the program.  He took a team that had never qualified to the NCAA Championships and made it into one that now almost always makes the trip to Terre Haute.  Now that Gary is the track coach too, that brass ring of a Big Ten track title remains elusive, last coming in 1993, but these days the Buckeyes are a perennial contender (and note that, in terms of true team competition, the Big Ten is the NCAA's toughest) and it's only a matter of time before they break through and win one.

If Ohio State's men's program had been middling and underachieving, the women's program had been truly awful.  Since the Big Ten began sponsoring women's track and cross country in 1978, the Buckeyes had never won a conference championship in 93 tries, was in the top half of the conference just 37% of the time, and was dead last 13 times.  The lone athletic powerhouse in the seventh-largest state in the union should be a whole lot better than that.

And now they are.  Today the Buckeye women won their first Big Ten championship.  A year ago they were runners-up at the indoor championship, which was a bit of a surprise at the time.  The first indication that things were really headed in the right direction was in the fall of 2009, when the cross country team broke out of its 30-year slump.  After finishing second-to-last at the Big Ten Championships, the Buckeyes took second at the Great Lakes regional which gave them an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Championships, the first time they'd ever made it to the big dance.  That was the point where the ball started to roll, and it's been steady improvement since then.

So congratulations to coaches Karen Dennis and Chris Neal and all the athletes that made it happen.  No other program in recent history, men or women, has gone from perennial underachiever to the top of a major conference, and certainly not in such a short time.

Hyped races aren't always the best races.  The Lagat-Rupp matchup in the 3000 meters at Saturday night's USATF Championships was getting all the attention, but I thought the women's race was more interesting and got the Rodney Dangerfield treatment ("I tell ya, I get no respect, no respect at all").

Lagat and Rupp are big names.  They've set records and been at the front of international races.  But the outcome of their race was never really in doubt.  Given that Lagat's 3k time two weeks ago en route to the American 2-mile record is faster than Rupp's 3k PR, Rupp came into the race worn down a bit from traveling literally around the world, and that Lagat's finishing speed is superior to that of virtually all 5k runners on the planet, there was no winning strategy for Rupp.  Like every team that faced the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals in the 90s, Rupp was there only to play a role in someone else's success story.

The women's race, on the other hand, was not so clearly defined.  Jennifer (Barringer) Simpson had been the breakout American star of 2009, but lost most of the 2010 season to a stress reaction on the head of her right femur, and Saturday night's USATF Championships 3000 meters was going to tell us a lot about where she stood.  It was her third race of this season, the first two being a relatively easy mile win at New York's Armory Center and a beating at the hands of Sally Kipyego at the New Balance Boston meet.

Her foe was Sara Hall, whose last 12 months have been the most productive of her career.  She did not run well at the Boston meet, finishing eighth in that 3000 meter race, but her finishing speed has been excellent, and in a championship race without rabbits it is an excellent weapon to have in your arsenal.  With a lap to go, Hall went to pass.

Barringer responded, just enough to make Hall stay wide on the turn.  Hall tried again in the last 100 meters, and Barringer didn't get completely clear until the last 50.  It remains to be seen whether Barringer will regain her form of two years ago, let alone exceed it, but this is a very good sign.

Sweden is still producing jumpers.  I watched the XL Galan from Stockholm on Tuesday, as a nicely timed ice storm led to me not having to go to work.  The star of the meet was 17-year-old Angelica Bengtsson, who came into the meet as the junior world record holder (and senior Swedish record holder) in the pole vault.  She broke that record three times on Tuesday, and ended up in a one-on-one duel with former World Champion Svetlana Feofanova.  She lost, but clearly won the hearts of the crowd.

It's not just Bengtsson. Sweden consistently produces top jumpers, and pretty much nothing else.  Kajsa Bergqvist, Emma Green, Stefan Holm, Christian Olsson, Linus Thornblad, and Carolina Kluft are (or recently were) just about the best their events had to offer.  There are an awful lot of second- and third-tier Swedish jumpers too, like Ebba Jungmark and Michel Torneus.

I'd say they make a mockery of the White Men Can't Jump stereotype, but I think they make a better case of nurture trumping nature.  Bengtsson has some Brazilian ancestry, and Torneus (by the American definition) isn't even white or Swedish, with one parent from Congo and the other from Finland.  They are Swedish by upbringing, and apparently that's what matters here.

So what is it about Sweden that produces so many good jumpers?  If Michigan, which has a similar population, was as productive in this one area, people would be flocking to the state to figure out what they heck they were doing right.

By the way, Americans could learn a thing or two about meet organization from the Swedes.  While the XL Galan had music during the meet, it wasn't overdone.  We tend to blare it the entire time, during races and everything else, which drowns out the action.  The XL Galan even had "bump-up" music for field event competitors as they came up for their attempts, but cut it off as they approached the takeoff board.  Remember, music gets people excited for the competition to come--during the competition, it's a distraction.  In other sports, they only play music during time-outs, or in the case of old-school organ players at baseball and hockey games, at a lull in the action.  Your athletic event is your product, and you should not let anything compete with it.

US women's throwing prospects continue to rise.  At the USATF championships, Jill Camarena-Williams broke the American indoor record with 19.87 meters (65' 2 1/4").  That's big.  It's a foot better than she's ever thrown before.  It's the world leader by a meter, although that doesn't mean a whole lot because the major players haven't competed yet this year.

It would have been fourth on last year's world list, and that's meaningful.  Camarena-Williams must now be considered a medal threat at the coming World Championships and Olympics.  And the USA doesn't win medals in this event.  Olympics: one (Earlene Brown, bronze, 1960).  Worlds: zero.  World indoors: two (Connie Price-Smith, silver, 1995; Teri Tunks, bronze, 1999).

I don't know the specifics of why Camarena-Williams has been able to continually improve, whether it's good coaching or training or exactly what, but I do know in very general terms why she's now able to compete at the highest levels.  She's 29 years old, and she's been able to stay in throwing at a very serious level ever since she left college.  Throwing is the event area that takes the longest for athletes to reach their full potential.

Attendance didn't look so good this weekend.  I don't have hard numbers save the Big 12 Championships, but the appearances were bad.  There were a lot of empty seats at the USATF in Albuquerque, which isn't all that big a venue to begin with.  The Big 12 only had 2,573 show up for the final day in Lincoln, and you'd figure a strong home team would draw more.  Arkansas was in the fight at the SEC, which they hosted, and their place was far from full as well.

This year in general it's been awful.  Like I wrote a while back, Millrose attendance was atrocious.  I can never get a reliable number on the invitational in Boston, so I don't know what to say about that one.  After those, the best-attended meets in the USA have been the Simplot Games and the Husky Classic, with estimated attendances of 3,500 and 3,200.

John Walker proclaimed indoor track in the USA dead in 1990.  I think you'd have to call it undead, since it still walks.  But it's definitely in the most-of-its-flesh-has-fallen-off stage of zombiedom.

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