EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 27, 2013

For U.S. sports fans, track barely registers anymore

By Patrick Reusse
Minneapolis Star Tribune

---- — What we call track and field is referred to as “athletics” in the Olympics and other international competitions. The governing body is the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), with headquarters since 1993 in the scenic tax haven of Monaco.

The IAAF officially started to hold the World Championships for track and field in 1983. It was a quadrennial event through 1991, and then became a biennial event in 1993.

The 14th IAAF World Championships concluded a nine-day run in Moscow on Sunday. And as an American sports fan, here’s the question:

Did you notice?

We can still run across essays on the declines of boxing and horse racing as major passions for American sports fans.

Boxing might have been No. 2 behind baseball in the 1950s and a heavyweight title fight still could get America’s juices going into the ‘70s. Attention for horse racing is now basically restricted to the Triple Crown.

Football, and specifically the NFL, now dominates thoroughly the public’s interest. Basketball is a distant No. 2, with baseball holding on for dear life at No. 3.

Certainly, America’s sporting zeal changes through the decades, but it’s amazing for a high school graduate of 1963 and a certified sports nut of that era to see what has happened to track and field as a point of interest in this country.

That was a time when the Summer Olympics were little more than an excuse to hold the world’s greatest track meet. Now, television devotes much more of its main-channel focus to swimmers and gymnasts.

That’s because the Yanks win more and look really good in their suits in swimming, and those 15-year-old girls are so dang cute as they risk heartbreak on the balance beam.

Here’s all you need to know about the United States’ level of enthusiasm for track and field:

We have yet to play host to the IAAF World Championships. Edmonton held it in 2001, but never a U.S. city.

My first awareness of the Summer Olympics was in 1956. They were held in Melbourne. I could barely find Melbourne on a map, but I was fully aware that Bobby Morrow had won the 100, the 200 and anchored the winning 400 relay and that he was from Abilene Christian, a college from Texas so small that it didn’t even play football in the Southwest Conference.

The 1960 Olympics were in Rome and the American public was fully invested in what would happen on the track inside Stadio Olimpico.

The track meet series between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had started in 1958. To the athletes, it was competition. To us, it was Freedom vs. the Red Menace.

And then came Sept. 1, 1960, “the darkest day in United States track and field history,” wrote columnist Arthur Daley of the New York Times.

John Thomas, with a 7-foot-3 3/4 leap before the Olympics, barely cleared 7 feet and finished third in the high jump. Ray Norton, the heavy favorite, finished last in the 100 meters. Armin Hary of Germany won the event, which had belonged to the U.S. since 1928.

Later, Norton would fail to medal in the 200, and then he ran out of his exchange zone to get our unbeatable 400-meter relay team disqualified.

Wilma Rudolph was left to save us, winning three golds in the 100, 200 and the 400 relay, and truly starting what became a movement for women’s sports equality in America.

Track and field was big enough to do that back then. Now, they give the world a great track meet to follow in the dog days of August and Americans hardly notice ... including me.

(Contact Patrick Reusse at preusse@startribune.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)