A few years ago an elite sprinter who trained in the same facility as our youth track club ran the season’s fastest indoor 55-meter dash. Within minutes of his race, before he could even catch his breath, his cell phone “blew up”. Meet directors from all over Eu-rope: Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid called. They wanted this fastest sprinter’s commitment to compete in their upcoming meets. Shy and modest, his post race humor captured the moment, athletic and political: “They can’t find a Nigerian shoe bomber, but they can find a Jamaican sprinter halfway around the world.” [I as-sume they had his cell number from previous entries, and of course race results are electronically reported immediately.] His wonderful irony expresses the state of track and field in the U.S. Largely ignored at home, track and field athletes are heralded in Europe. Elite U.S. track and field athletes often say that they can walk down any street here and never be recognized, but are rec-ognized as they come off the plane in Europe.
I help coach track. I surveyed some of our University of Chicago Track Club athletes and the other coaches on what they liked most and least about track and field. On “least”, Homer Thomas, our head coach, wrote without hesitation, indeed, in the midst of practice: “The lack of public interest (as shown by newspaper and media)–except in an Olympic year. Cities such as Chicago give very little support to the sport, on any level: grade school, high school, college or club.” Thus do lovers of the sport universally deplore U.S. lack of interest! A historical indication of the pro-gression of waning interest comes to mind. In 1959, fifty-seven years ago, I was a “paperboy” for The Boston Globe. I still recall that the top half of the front page, not the sports section, the front page; was simply a photo of John Thomas going over the bar. Thomas, a 17-year-old, had the previous night become the first person to high jump seven feet. If the eight- foot- plus record were broken this February 2016, at these same New York Mill-rose games, I suspect the story would be buried somewhere in the sports pages. Nobody but track fans would pay attention.
What happened? What happened in those fifty-seven years? Vid-eo games, skate boarding, the explosion of TV entertainment (such as cage fighting), the popularity of pick-up basketball, are obvious causes of the public decline of track and field. Outside the public eye, in the world of athletes, there is in addition a sub-terranean cause. Track training and competition used to be con-sidered advantageous, if not essential, for athletes in other sports. It was standard for high school and college athletes, par-ticularly backs and wide receivers, to be instructed by coaches to “go out for” track in the spring. Competing in the 100, 220, and 440-yard dashes (pre-metric) was considered to be a perfect base for fall football. No more. I am quite obviously, almost existen-tially so, “Old School”, but I still believe in that approach: football in the fall and track in the spring. There is nothing like the posi-tive impact on the body and soul of fighting through the pain of that last 110 yards of the 440. I once felt as if a cannonball had hit me in the chest on that final turn. (A veteran coach greeted me at the finish line with: “That’s how you are supposed to feel!”) That translates well to bursting off-tackle at full speed and yet know-ing that you are about to get hit by a 250 pound linebacker. How-ever, Division I college football coaches disagree. They now de-mand spring weight training programs that preclude track. In other words, football, and football-specific training, reigns.
But there is a duality here. At the neighborhood level , at the base, track is big. Afro-American youth still gravitate to the sport. Our club has approximately one hundred athletes, at least 90 of whom are Afro-American; most are girls and young women. Girls and their parents know that track is perhaps the best opportunity for receiving a college scholarship. Please allow our athletes to speak for themselves on why they like track.
A seven year-old boy: “I like track and field because it makes me strong”
A nine year-old girl: “What I like about track is that I get to be free to run and I get to compete against others. In case I do long jump, I want to jump as far as I dream I could.”
An eight year-old girl: “I like to race and run and see how fast I am”.
An eight-year-old girl: “I like the long jump because I am jump-ing into a pit of sand and I’m good at it.”
A sixteen year-old woman: “It is not just running. You have shot, discus, high jump, horizontal jumps and hammer. It is so unique. You could be on a team or you can just be an individual. That’s what I like about it.” She, by the way is one of the top tri-ple jumpers in the United States. I have seen courageous efforts by these youth that I would not have imagined prior to coaching.
When I attend a national AAU or USATF youth meet there are thousands of Afro-American competitors and parents in the stands, on the track and infield. Most appear to be working class. There most certainly is no sense of privilege and entitlement. Such whiteness and class privilege rears its ugly head around here in only in the “preciousness” of youth soccer.
The purity of the sport, the perfect oval, attracts. The rules are pure and simple. No intricate delayed reviews of whether or not it was a “catch”, a fumble, a touchdown. If one runs around that oval faster than anyone else, nobody can take it away from you: no referee, no teammate, no coach. The same is true of the throws and jumps. With the exception of relays, it is all about one’s individual existential effort.
Please allow a personal note of conclusion. There is nothing worse than an old guy talking about “Glory Days” as perfectly ex-pressed by Bruce Springsteen. I have had the privilege of compet-ing at the scholastic level in tennis, basketball, wrestling, football and track. The essential teamwork of football and basketball are compelling. However, nothing equals lining up on a 400-meter track with seven other sprinters, the gut-wrenching initial feeling of aloneness, the pain of the effort (a cannonball hitting the chest), and the liberation of hitting the tape.
Kingsley Clark lives in Chicago and is a long-time political activist. He is assistant coach at the University of Chicago Track Club. This article first appeared in Recomposition.