Monday, April 30, 2012

What we do when nobody is watching

As I sat on a cold metal bench watching some of the greatest athletes in the world I couldn't help but think - why aren't more people here?  There were about 10,000 people in the old Drake Stadium - many of them competitors or family members of competitors.  What other sport could you pay for decent seats and find yourself sitting behind the women's team from University of Cincinnati and next to some boys from a local high school team?
Lolo Jones might have scratched - but there were plenty of world class performances on the day.  We saw at least two world leading times and one world leading high jump in the 4 hours we were in the stands.  We saw the current world champion 1500m champ Jenny Simpson compete.  We also witnessed the 300 yard stares of young women as they walked single file to the start line next to the hurdles that would soon taunt them.  They looked like they might throw up as they contemplated one of the most cruel races - the 400m hurdles.  One of them clipped her trail leg on the hurdle on the last turn - the whole crowd gasped as her momentum and the sudden change in her direction had her careening violently toward the ground.  She laid - crumpled on the track for a few minutes until they helped her off.  The woman who won ran 400m over hurdles faster than I ever ran it flat out.
We also got a great view of the men's triple jump.  My wife, who had never been to a track meet before was transfixed by one of the jumpers from University of Florida named Omar Craddock.  Wearing wrap around shades on the cloud darkened day - he started his pre-jump ritual with a complex series of movements.  He licked each finger, touched each side of his face with both fingers and then pointed at the pit - shooting his finger at the spot that he wanted to land - and then shaked his head confidently.  Next he started clapping is hands slowly above his head - motioning the crowd to start clapping.  He stood at the end of the runway in total focus, but if the crowd started increasing the rate of clapping too soon he would start slowly clapping again - imploring the crowd to match his beat.
Omar ended up losing by half an inch to Troy Doris - a three-time Big Ten champion from University of Iowa.  Troy jumped 53 feet 10.5 inches.  If he were on an NBA basketball court - he would have started his jump almost seven feet from the half-court line and touched the court only twice before landing on the opposite baseline.
Unfortunately Track & Field is under threat in America.  It doesn't draw big crowds or donors who pay for the privilege of sitting in fancy sky boxes.  Omar's preening may have seemed like something worthy of an NFL receiver, but there's a major difference - he'll never get millions for his superhuman deeds.  He has a chance at maybe going to the Olympics one day - but just as much of a chance that the explosiveness that makes him a world class athlete will also damage his knees.  His performance may have been captivating - but it was also relatively silent - the tree that falls in the forest with no one around.
There is a lot of hand wringing in the United States about what passes for entertainment these days.  The reality shows that pump up people with no talent for anything except making an ass of themselves into idols of popular culture.  Track meets are a kind of antidote to this world where nothing seems to matter unless millions are watching.  That these athletes train hard every day - and then perform superhuman feats in front of a relatively scarce crowd left me feeling good for America. 
If our culture still develops young people who are willing to dedicate themselves to a sport with few rewards and little renown then there's still some hope for this country.  The only thing that gives me pause is that the administrators at our universities seem to have forgotten the value of sports like track and field over the last few decades.  They forget that all sports were at one time merely a way for students to bond - to follow interests and talents - and to compete.  Sports have been simulataneously elevated in importance to the university as a revenue generator (for most schools more from a student recruitment and alumni fundraising standpoint than ticket sales or merchandise) and devalued as a way for students to grow outside the classroom.
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that if you find yourself with an open Saturday in the next few weeks - do your self a favor and find a local high school or college track meet.  You'll see an incredible cross-section of America coming from every economic and cultural background - all there to see what performances they can wring out of talent and a lot of hard work even if nobody is watching.

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