What Is Happening to United States Track and Field?

by George Wright on June 28, 2004

Revelations of alleged drug use by United States Track and Field athletes lead to the prediction that the BALCO scandal will devastate this year’s Olympic team. With the Olympic Games just two months away, the scandal has certainly raised the question: Will the United States Track and Field team win any medals at Athens? But, in fact, the BALCO incident is only the latest in a series of developments over the past 40 years, which have caused United States Track and Field prowess to decline. Even before BALCO, the prospect of the United States winning more medals in Athens than at the Olympic Games in Sydney was uncertain.

The United States used to dominate international Track and Field. As example, between the 1948 and 1968 Olympic Games, the United States men averaged 12 gold medals; and 24 total medals at each of those Olympics. But in the past decade, the United States’ international success has been in decline. For example, at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the United States men won 9 gold medals, with a total of 22 medals overall. By comparison, in Sydney in 2000 the total was 6 gold, with an overall total of 12 medals. Moreover, in the past four World Championships beginning with the 1997 World Championships in Athens, the United States men have averaged 6 gold medals, and less than 11 total.

The following developments combined to contribute to the slippage of United States Track and Field internationally:

The NCAA-AAU Conflict: In the 1960’s, the National Collegiate Athletic Association attempted to wrestle control of the International Amateur Athletics Federation-sanctioned franchise to organize international Track and Field teams and competitions from the Amateur Athletic Union. This conflict generated power struggles which made it difficult to: (a) coordinate the sport on the grassroots level; (b) conduct national championships; and (c) form teams for international competition. In the mid-1970’s, Congress intervened into the conflict to pass the Amateur Sports Act of 1978-legislation which restructured the administration of the sport. Under the legislation, the NCAA still controls intercollegiate Track and Field, while the national Track and Field federation (USA Track & Field) still oversees the formation of national teams. This conflict was a major set-back for the coordination and the advancement of the sport and its implications, despite the Congressional legislation, still reverberate throughout the sport.

Public Loses Sight of Track and Field: There are two reasons why public attention to Track and Field has waned. First, when the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to the west coast in 1958, the national expansion (and proliferation) of professional team sports began. These sports, which had more resources than Track and Field and were more media savvy, supplanted local interest in the sport. As a result of the expansion of professional sports, there was a significant decline in press coverage of Track and Field which marginalized the sport in the public consciousness. Because of this development many young-talented athletes who might have gone out for Track and Field in the past began to concentrate on team sports, particularly football and basketball.

The second factor in decreased interest among the United States public is that the centerpiece of the sport is now in Europe. Prior to the 1970’s, except for the quadrennial Olympic Games, the focal point for the sport was the spring meets in California (Coliseum Relays, Compton Invitational, West Coast Relays, and the California Relays). Over the past 30 years, the sport has shifted to Europe with its extremely lucrative pro-summer circuit (currently the Golden League). Thus, near world record performances and big head-to-head international competitions now seldom occur in the United States.

NCAA Internationalized Intercollegiate Track and Field: Prior to the 1970’s, the NCAA’s Track and Field talent pool was homegrown student-athletes. Since the early-1970’s a significant number of NCAA student-athletes have been foreign-born. This change in emphasis occurred because athletic directors demanded that coaches produce competitors for the national collegiate championships to justify their programs. Therefore, a mature foreign athlete is considered by coaches to be immediately competitive, where a young United States-born athlete might take longer to develop.

The Professionalization of Track and Field: In the early 1980’s the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletics Federation rescinded rules for amateurism, allowing athletes to earn money in the sport. This decision allowed athletes to compete past their collegiate careers. But there was a detrimental effect as well. The very best athletes earned such huge amounts of money that they compete for 10-15 years, thus making it difficult for many young athletes to earn enough money to stay in the sport until their late-20’s when they would reach athletic maturity.

The Third World Becomes Wellspring for Talent: Third World athletes are increasingly visible in Track and Field, mainly due to the economic benefits that professional Track and Field success can bring. There are several manifestations of this development: (a) the amazingly deep corps of African middle and long distance runners; (b) foreign-born athletes who compete on the NCAA level; and (c) Third World athletes who have become naturalized citizens in Western countries.

Despite the above mentioned factors along with the BALCO incident, this year’s United States Olympic Track team will not be devastated. There are still a number of veteran athletes untainted by the BALCO scandal, particularly sprinters and hurdlers, who if healthy, could medal at the Games. There are also a few athletes in the collegiate ranks who might medal if they make the national team-Baylor’s Jeremy Wariner and Texas’ Sanya Richards (a naturalized Jamaican) come to mind. However, if the trends discussed above persist, there will be an Olympic Games (or a World Championships) where the United States will not win a single gold medal. That possibility could still happen in Athens.

(The United States Olympic Track and Field Trials will be held at California State University, Sacramento, 9-12, 15-18 July.)

George Wright is a retired Professor of International Politics. He can be reached at milergeorge@sbcglobal.net.

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