Raising the Bar: How Track and Field Leads the Way on Sport's Most Pressing Issues

Ross McGowan

The exact specifics of track's hot-button issues may not excite the common sports fan, but their implications should.

Much to my unending dismay, no one in America enjoys watching track and field. Not on television, not in person, not at all. Few sports can claim to have half as many participants as track, particularly in the form of distance running, yet all but the tiniest sliver of casual joggers has even heard of the sport's giants -- Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrsellasie, and Paula Radcliffe to name a few. Imagine walking up to a pickup football game and receiving nothing but looks of puzzlement at the mention of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. The paltry proportion of runners who actually follow their sport at the elite level outlines why track and field has almost no hope of ever catching on in this country.

With such minuscule popular appeal, why even write about track? 2006 is one of track's quadrennial off years, as neither Olympic nor Outdoor World Championship medals will be awarded. As a result, the height of the sport's competition this year will occur not in August, but early spring. A few weeks ago Moscow hosted the IAAF World Indoor Championships. The Commonwealth Games -- an Olympics-style gala consisting of former pieces of the British Empire -- has recently concluded. And the IAAF World Cross Country Championships is contested on the first weekend of April. For those of us who love track, this is as exciting a stretch as the year will offer.

But as much as the track world exists in its own little bubble (at least in America), the sport is rife with timely issues that also rage in more mainstream sports. Race, culture, and, as always, performance-enhancing drugs are never far from the forefront of discussion amongst the track community. The exact specifics of track's hot-button issues may not excite the common sports fan, but their implications should, as in many ways track is on the leading edge of sport's biggest controversies.

For example, one can hardly tune into ESPN's Sports Center for more than 15 minutes before hearing about steroids, especially with respect to our national pastime. Just when it seems as though the uproar surrounding steroids in baseball has reached its peak, some other mess will come along and dwarf everything else, reminding us that the battle to keep all sports clean is far from over. The latest, greatest example, of course, is Sports Illustrated's recent release of an excerpt from Game of Shadows, in which San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams extensively detail Bonds' use of performance-enhancing drugs since 1998. Anytime a story along these lines breaks (the Rafael Palmiero positive drug test is another prominent example), baseball columnists all over the country invariably chime in, publicly hemming and hawing over whether or not they will eventually vote for this generation's set of oversized sluggers once their names begin to appear on Hall of Fame ballots.

This, essentially, points to the greater problem -- no one can really say how much of baseball's records books are tainted. And the same conundrum exists for track and field. I get the impression that, for many sports fans, the most enduring track-related image from the last 25 years is of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson blowing away a loaded field at the 1988 Seoul Olympics with a then-unthinkable 9.79, only to get busted for doping shortly thereafter. The fact that he actually got caught using illegal steroids was a positive for the sport, as it established at least some sense of competitive justice. But in 2003, documents surfaced showing that runner-up and de facto gold medalist Carl Lewis had actually failed drug tests of his own, the results were simply covered up by the United States Olympic Committee. Carl Lewis surely wasn't the only American athlete to receive this protective privilege; so to say that some of the sport's most heralded athletes from the '80s and '90s were dirty isn't exactly a stretch.

Most shameful (and comical, really) is the all-time performance list in the men's hammer throw. Thirty-four of the top 40 all-time furthest hammer throws were recorded from 1983-92 by athletes hailing from Communist bloc countries (Russia, Belarus, Estonia, and Hungary). Most of these came between '86 and '88. The factory-like efficiency of the Communist athletic system in the '80s, especially when it comes to illegal doping, is well documented, and I'd like to think that most people wouldn't need a team of investigative journalists (or this fledgling freelancer) to connect the dots for them in this case.

The inevitable results of such a checkered past is, I fear, that people still view track as being hopelessly corrupt. Is track clean? No -- probably not by a long shot. But just as most Americans want to believe that Lance Armstrong won his seven Tour de France titles solely by training harder than his competitors, I desperately hope that the athletes I so greatly admire, especially the distance runners, haven't so much as thought of taking a performance-enhancing drug. Still; I'm not a fool. Every week, it seems, a new article pops up detailing the discovery of a heretofore unheard of steroid or chemical that makes athletes harder, better, faster, stronger. When it comes to matters of track's cleanliness, it's hard not to be cynical.

But at least track and field's leading entities are sincerely trying to put a stop to the drug problem. By contrast, Bud Selig freely pats himself on the back every time one out of a thousand major leaguers receives a 10-day suspension for an offense that has career-lasting implications. And any professional football player will feign anxiety over the harsh punishments and frequent testing of the NFL's steroid policy, all the while knowing damn well that there's no test for Human Growth Hormone, the drug that any educated person would suspect has its own corner in every team's locker room.

Thankfully, when the powers-that-be in track's ruling bodies see world class sprinters like Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones showing off fresh new sets of braces (misshapen jawlines are a telltale sign of HGH usage), they do something about it. Montgomery is about to complete year one of a two-year competitive ban, and Jones, who was inextricably linked to Montgomery's case, was effectively blackballed from all major competitions last summer. Several other high-profile sprinters have been given similar punishments.

Of course, I've given no reason thus far to dissuade anyone from thinking that the only relevant contemporary topic in track and field is the perpetual battle to rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs. The inherent, resonant beauty of the sport manifests itself in many ways, and chief among these is that track is perhaps more ethnically diverse than any other major world sport save soccer. Track and field "World" Champions can rightfully claim that title, as any nation can conceivably produce great runners, sprinters, jumpers, and throwers. The fundamental athletic skills that drive track know no geographic or economic bounds. This is not to say, however, that the sport is devoid of racial and cultural issues.

In this country, skinny white kids learn soon enough that their dreams of winning an Olympic sprinting gold medal will only be realized in their dreams, and that's if they're especially ambitious. But in the last two years the white sprinter has scaled competitive heights that, honestly, probably haven't been reached since the 19th century. While the astonishing fact that a white man has never broken ten seconds in the 100 meter dash still holds true, the 400 is currently as racially diverse as a sprinting event can reasonably hope to be. It began in 2004, when American Jeremy Wariner had his breakthrough season, winning NCAA, U.S. Olympic Trials, and Olympic titles. Not only is Wariner white, but he's also rather slender. He is undeniably athletic-looking, but possesses nowhere near the comic book levels of musculature we've become accustomed to in our great sprinters. It was easy to assume that Wariner was a genetic anomaly until the 2005 season. Wariner, as expected, won the World Championship 400, but placing second was white American sprinter Andrew Rock, and in fifth was Tim Benjamin, a white Briton who beat Wariner in a London meet earlier in the summer.

The sudden emergence of white sprinters in an event where black dominance was previously taken for granted was a major discussion point in the track community last year. In interviews, Wariner has stressed that he considers his race to be a moot point, but it's hard not to think that his Olympic performance didn't help shatter a decades-old defeatist mentality that plagued white sprinters the world over -- not to mention a whole host of racist essentialisms about black athletic superiority. If you were to tell me that ten years from now three of the top five NFL leading rushers will be white, my first instinct would be to scoff. But seeing white sprinters climb atop the medal stands in each of the last two track seasons has left me more open-minded to racial diversity amongst the sporting elite than I was prior to 2004.

Just as imposing as the black-white racial barrier can seem in the sprints, the incredible disparity in distance running between those of East African descent and those from anywhere else in the world is as evident now as it has ever been. In many ways, the Ethiopian and Kenyan distance supremacy is a symbol for everything that is great about track and field. They're among the world's poorest countries, yet they continually produce runners who test the body's physical limits and the mind's imagination. This East African dominance demonstrates just how far along distance running is in terms of development compared to the major American sports. Obviously the learning curve of distance running isn't nearly as steep, and its skill set is far more universal, so international diversity amongst its participants doesn't seem quite so outlandish.

But let's face it, Americans don't watch sports where they never win. And even when American runners medal in the Olympic marathon, as Mebrahtom Keflezighi (silver) and Deena Kastor (bronze) did in 2004, it barely registers with the sporting public, as Americans -- at least those that would potentially care -- are accustomed by now to think that their compatriots don't have a prayer on the international level. The days when someone like Steve Prefontaine graces the cover of Sports Illustrated merely for winning a couple of college races are long, long gone.

And so the current position of the track and field world in relation to the sporting world's major issues is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to the sport's relevance in America. Its cultural diversity, displayed through the remarkable achievements of the East African distance runners, is a sign of the sport's competitive healthiness. For track fans, it's comforting to know that world records and world championships can live up to the gravity of their titles. Yet in the events where Americans are typically also-rans, it's unlikely that people in this country will ever fully recognize or care about some of the world's greatest athletes. And when it comes to the fight against performance-enhancing drugs, track and field's ruling bodies can truly claim that they are doing as much as any other sport's to rid itself of dopers as best as possible. But when the only mainstream press track gets pertains to the suspension of another one of its stars, the sport's reputation is destined to be tarnished in the eyes of the unfamiliar and uneducated masses.

Track and field will always be the simplest and purest form of athletic competition, and it's only appropriate that a sport that exists solely to push the limits of human physicality should help lead the way when it comes to the sporting world's most pressing issues. Whether or not mainstream American will ever come around and recognize the sport's importance and brilliance is unsure. We can only hope for the best.





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