“Wake me up when the hurdles start.” That’s a phrase I often find myself saying at a track meet. I’m gonna have to go ahead and make the frank confession that track meets largely bore me. And based on the behavior of athletes and spectators at high school and college meets that I’ve attended this year, I’m not the only one yawning my way through most of the events. It isn’t that the competition itself is boring, but the vibe is definitely dead. This article will discuss why track meets lack the vitality that is often found at other sporting events, and what can be done about it.
Let me start by going down the list of some of the things I’ve seen people doing during track meets
• People walking on the track during races. This is one of the most annoying things I’ve seen. It just lets you know that whatever is happening on the track doesn’t really matter. Officials are always fighting that battle – trying to keep people from crossing the track during races. But for athletes, coaches, and fans alike, walking across the track is always more convenient than going around the long way. So we’re all guilty of it. Unless the officials are really strict about enforcing this rule, we’ll all try to get away with it.
• People walking across horizontal jumps runways during competition. This one happens more often than you might think. It’s amazing how completely unaware, including athletes themselves, can be at a track meet.
• People reading books. No doubt, track meets bring out the book lovers. Often the readers are parents who showed up for the meet only to see their son or daughter compete and couldn’t care less about track otherwise. Or the readers are athletes themselves keeping up with their homework.
• People texting. No surprise here. Texting is as common as breathing these days.
• People sleeping. Mainly, athletes between events can be found dozing. As a coach, I can’t be mad at ya. When you’re at a meet that lasts six hours and you have another four hours before you run, yeah, go ahead and take a nap.
• People just sitting there bored. Nothing new here. But it just strikes me sometimes, when I see the faraway look in people’s eyes, just how much they really don’t want to be there. You don’t see those kinds of looks at basketball games, football games, and the like. That distant, eyes-glazed-over look is unique to track, it seems to me.
• People randomly screaming to cheer a particular athlete. This one can be especially jarring. Amidst all of the boredom and the yawns and the laid-back atmosphere, someone suddenly starts yelling at the top of their lungs. It makes you want to call security to kick them the hell out. Usually a fanatical coach or a passionate parent is guilty of this one. Athletes are too busy thinking about where they’re going to stop to eat on the way back home to get this riled up.
• People randomly screaming at field event stuff. This one is similar to the previous one. Most of the time you don’t even realize the field events are even going on, then someone in the middle of the bleachers starts screaming at a triple-jumper.
• Dude spinning a basketball on his finger. Only saw this one once, but it did catch my eye. He was an athlete, and the thing about it was, he wasn’t even facing the track.
• People taking pictures. What’s wrong with that, right? Well, quite often they’re not taking pictures of the competition, but of each other, or of the architecture of the stadium. And all the while, races are going on.
• People doing stadium steps. Yes, I’ve seen non-athletes – fans, spectators, whatever, getting workouts in during track meets instead of watching the meet.
• People grading papers. Okay I haven’t seen this one, but I’ve done this one, but only at meets where I either had no athletes competing or my athletes had finished competing. Hey, nobody’s gonna grade them for me.
This boredom issue exists mainly at the high school and collegiate levels. But even pro meets aren’t beyond reproach. There was a pro meet not too long ago where one of the flights of hurdles was set at the wrong place, for crying out loud. But the ennui is probably worst at the collegiate level, really. At big meets it’s often not a problem – at conference championships, at some of the bigger relay meets like the Penn Relays and Drake Relays, at nationals. I’ve been to the Penns on several occasions and can watch three days of races without getting bored. So the cause of the boredom has nothing to do with the competition level, but with the energy level. At most meets, the energy level is just plain old blah. Why?
The biggest culprit is down time. Too much down time can kill a track meet. Athletes who woke up that morning eager to set a personal best end up not caring how well they do as long as they can hurry up and get their race over with. So down time affects performance, and it effects the interest level of the crowd. When you’re sitting there waiting ten minutes between races, your mind wanders. You start yawning, you start texting, you start reading, you start spinning a basketball on your finger. The worst is random down time – when the meet is running behind schedule but nobody in the audience knows why. You’re just sitting there. Waiting. Getting hungry. Getting hot.
The other big culprit is a poor announcer. By poor I mean an announcer who doesn’t try to energize the crowd, who doesn’t let the crowd aware of what’s going on on the track and the field, an announcer who pronounces athletes’ names incorrectly, an announcer who doesn’t let you know who the big names are. You get the point.
Earlier this spring I attended one of the most star-studded track meets I’ve been to in a long time. The International Friendship and Freedom Games at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, NC. It featured many mega-stars in the world of track and field, as well as some of the nation’s top collegians and high school runners. Among the marquee names were the following:
• David Oliver – best 110m hurdler in the nation, personal best of 12.95, 2009 national champions, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist.
• Xavier Carter – arguably the greatest triple threat sprinter ever, boasting personal best times of 10.00, 19.63, and 44.53.
• LaShawn Merritt – 400m gold medalist in 400 at the 08 Olympics, ranked #1 in world in 08. Personal bests of 43.75 and 19.98.
• Mechelle Lewis – personal best of 10.97 in the 100m, member of the 4x100m relay team in the 08 Olympics.
• Chandra Sturrup – long-time sprinter still going strong at age 37. Finished 4th in the 100 in 1996, 6th in 2000, 3rd at the ’01 world championships, 3rd at the ’03 wc’s. Personal best of 10.84.
• Shalonda Solomon – one of the top sprinters in the US. Personal bests of 11.09 in the 100, 22.36 in the 200.
• Marshevet Hooker – 2005 NCAA 100m champ, personal bests of 10.93, 22.34.
• Danielle Carruthers – one of the top 100m hurdlers in the US. Personal best of 12.56. National 60m hurdle champion in ’05 and ’06.
• Tiffany Ross-Williams – national champion in the 400m hurdles in 08, personal best of 53.28.
• Rachelle Boone-Smith – 2006 200m national champ, pr 22.22.
• Travis Padgett – 9.89 personal best at 2008 Olympic trials.
And there were additional big names in the sprints and hurdles, such as Jason Smoots, Dwight Thomas, Joel Brown, Jason Richardson, Drew Brunson, and Fred Townsend.
(The 400m hurdles were run at eight in the morning, but that’s an issue for another day.)
So of course, in such a star-studded meet, the bleachers were packed with fans going crazy, right? No. The bleachers were mostly empty, and the people there were bored out of their minds. And it was hot. The meet kept running behind schedule, and no one knew why. There was interminable down time between races, and no one knew why. When LaShawn Merritt won the 200 in 20.17 – a blistering time for mid-April – all the announcer said was, “In first, Merritt, 20.17.” No mention of Merritt being a 2008 gold medal winner. No hyped-ness in the announcer’s voice. He might as well have been announcing that hotdogs were being sold at the concessions stand. If that guy had been the announcer in Beijing, he probably would’ve been like, “In first, Bolt, 19.30.”
No such disinterest or nonchalance exists at the Penns, or at meets like the Nike Outdoor Nationals, and there are plenty of others. But overall, track people are their own worst enemies.
© 2009 Steve McGill