FALSE START #H - AUGUST 2006 by David E. Ortman

Track and Field - Is there a Doctor in the Fieldhouse?

When was the last time you heard of track and field bailing out the football program? Track and field is a sad shell of its former glory. Justin Gatlin. Marion Jones. Tim Montgomery. Chryste Gaines. Alvin Harrison. Michelle Collins. And you remember Ben Johnson. Meanwhile, drug infused Baseball, Football and Basketball command astronomical player salaries and seemingly astronomical ticket prices. What’s the difference?

Well, one difference is that baseball, football and basketball have some self-imposed limits. A home run is a home run whether it is hit 305 feet or 505 feet. You don’t get extra bennies for the extra feet. Baseball games can still be won with a bunt, hardly something for which you need EPO or steroids. The maximum football return would be 109 yards. You don’t get any extra bennies for running the ball back 1500 yards for a kickoff return touchdown. If the quarterback makes a two yard pass and the receiver runs for 80 yards for a touchdown, it counts no more or less than an 80 yard pass and a two yard run. In basketball, it's three points whether from just outside the three-point line, or from 90 feet away. And a basketball game can still be won with a 15 foot free throw. No one takes steroids to shot free throws.

In all three sports, it is likely that drugs speed up recovery time from injuries and allow players to pack on more muscle. (Do you see 350 lb linemen walking down the street on a daily basis?) But the fans don’t really seem to care. If world wrestling federation size athletes are swinging for the fences, or powering in for a windmill jam, or stiff-arming the heck out defensive backs, well, it’s entertainment, so much the better. If the records are “tainted,” well, it taint so bad. No one pretends that professional baseball, basketball or football records are world records. For example, Wilt Chamberlain may have scored 100 points in a NBA game, but over in Sweden in a 1974 regional boys’ tournament, 13-year old Mats Wermelin scored 272 points in a single game.

But in Track and Field it’s all about Swifter, Higher, Stronger. It’s all about the world records. If the man or woman in the next lane, or in the same field event flight, is capable of not only winning but setting a world record and might be on drugs, what do you think you are going to have to do to compete? Or is something else going on with Track and Field besides the drugs?

Yes, Virginia, track and field once saved a football program. Payton Jordan, retired Stanford track coach, was interviewed by John Blanchette of the Spokesman-Review (WA) as part of an August 14th article on the 1992 Spokane National Masters Championships (you remember the 104 degree afternoons, don’t you?). According to Jordan, in the summer of 1961, Stanford’s athletic program was $100,000 in debt as a result of a 0-10 football season. The next year, Jordan drew 72,500 and 81,000 spectators to Stanford Stadium to see the fourth U.S.-U.S.S.R dual track meet, raising enougth money to erase Stanford’s red ink. It wouldn’t have happened in 1992 and it wouldn’t happen today. Blanchette asked Jordon who’s killing track and field?

“Almost everyone, in Jordan’s view.

“He starts with the hypocrisy of the ruling bureaucracy, ‘which would still like the athletes to run for free.’ He moves on to include the short-sightedness of athletes who command such high appearance fees for invitational meets that head-to-head competition becomes rare – almost non-existent in this country. Indifference from sponsors and a jaundiced public also share some blame.

“’The expectation here is that a world record has to be set or there’s nothing about a race that’s worthwhile’ Jordan reasoned. ‘Head-to-head is what the Europeans look for. Here you can’t get a sponsor to put up $100,000 for a match race between Carl Lewis and Linford Christie, but a shoe company will give $10 million to Michael Jordan.’

“’If you don’t put the sport on stage in your own country, how are you going to get support? An artist has to put his work on canvas.’”

Sure, we need better drug testing, but better drug testing is not going to save track and field.

(c) Copyright 2006, David E. Ortman

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