USA Track and Field: 2014 Is the Year to Get Creative
In a sport struggling for relevance in a realm dominated by football, basketball and baseball, few can question the relative success and corresponding visibility the London Olympics provided the American track and field teams.
But then, the Summer Games have always been the primary showcase for our best runners, jumpers and throwers.
Also, in the years immediately following and preceding Olympics years, the IAAF World Championships in Athletics provide another highly visible stage for our sport.
But typically, after an Olympics, casual fan interest begins to drop off, ultimately descending to the lowest point—the dreaded "off year." It's the midpoint between Olympiads, when there are no major global championships on which athletes (or fans) can focus.
In the current cycle, that would be the year 2014.
Fortunately, there are several unique factors related to the off year which could be exploited in the interest of enhancing the image and popularity of American track and field.
Established Athletes Take a Break
As we saw in 2010, established names in track and field will often purposely stand down in the off year in order to let nagging injuries heal (Liu Xiang), to emotionally or mentally recalibrate (Yelena Isinbayeva), or to birth a child (Kara Goucher).
The governing powers in U.S. track would do well to seize this opportunity and find ways to get the spotlight on our young, promising athletes.
Emphasize 2014 as a year of reloading by placing our raw, young talent into the breech of high-profile national and international meets whenever legally possible, stretching them beyond the youth-championships level.
And if they can't legally compete, at least get them to meets, where they can mingle. Excellence is contagious.
If their names and faces are out there sooner rather than later, the exposure and experience will eventually pay dividends.
Then, when Rio 2016 rolls around, casual fans won't have to scurry to Wikipedia to learn about the next Ryan Bailey or Jeneba Tarmoh. The expectation and excitement level for the next generation of elites will already be near the frenzy stage.
And that's good for the sport.
A Good Time to Hone Those Relay Skills
The relays have always been among the favorite attractions of fans at track meets. In the off year of 2014, U.S. decision-makers should work toward an extra emphasis on the relays.
The IAAF's World Relays concept for 2014 is a good start and something along the lines of a national relay championship should be considered here in the U. S.
Former sprinter and relay standout Jon Drummond did a fantastic job preparing our relay teams for London. But until the U.S. once again rules the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays, there is more work to be done—and there are still too many empty seats in our track stadiums.
Will the U.S. men regain relay dominance in the next five years?
Keeping in mind that the short relays are more about chemistry, technique and repetition than sheer speed, I'm going to make a bold statement:
The American sprint pool (for both genders) is so deep and talented, I think it's feasible that a world-class team of 4x100-relay "specialists" could be formed without even having to tap into our top tier of sprinters.
Could such a team of relay specialists beat the Jamaicans? Probably not, without utilizing our very fastest runners.
But yes, I'm convinced it could beat any other team in the world.
Which leads me to my point: Given the right chemistry and enough practice, both U.S. men and women could each field two of the top three 4x100-relay teams in the world.
And with that kind of depth, any contingency at the majors could be covered without a drop-off in quality. In addition, our open sprinters would be more rested and focused on their specialties.
In an already popular event, success would only breed...well, more paying customers and higher TV viewership.
What better time to sharpen those skills than in track and field's off year?
Athletes Are More Flexible in Their Training Schedules
Without the impetus of a global championship, 2014 could provide a bit less rigidity for the most hardcore athletes. Maybe even time to think about doing fun stuff...like match races, street vaults and beach throws.
Imagine Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross on an old-fashioned barnstorming tour, competing in a match race series alternating over 200 and 400 meters.
Or Christian Cantwell and Reese Hoffa launching 16-pound cannonballs on Coney Island or Laguna Beach.
Christian Taylor and Will Claye in a triple jump-off at the Mall?
If the people won't come to the athletes, let the athletes go to the people—at least in the down year.
It seems like it would make for an interesting and fun brainstorming session for the USATF's new CEO and his staff.
And with talk of an athlete's union now moving to the front burner (via ESPN), the timing is right to get some creative proposals in the discussion.
Regardless of the year, there is no bad track and field action to the true track fan. But it could be better.
I'm not particularly attached to the suggestions I've offered here (although I do like that Felix/Ross tour).. They're simply ideas off the top of my head.
But it is past time to make some bold, innovative moves on behalf of our sport.
2014 seems like an ideal launching point.
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