Track and Field: The Beauty Is in the Simplicity

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2011

A scene repeated virtually unchanged for over 27 centuries.
A scene repeated virtually unchanged for over 27 centuries.

With so many fans these days postulating on what is wrong with our sport, I wanted to take another look at what is right with it.

This past weekend, I was immersed in the dramatic battle taking place under the hot Arizona sun at the Pac-10 Conference Championships (especially on the women's side). I was struck by a glaring contrast.

There, in one small corner of the world, was the classic struggle of the kings (and queens) of the hill, wounded and weary, yet valiantly defending their turf. It was a 'backs-against-the-wall, mano-a-mano, last warrior stands' epic battle.

In the case of the women's team championship, it came down to the last straightaway on the last relay leg of the final event.

Track and field, literally, does not get any better than that.

Half a world away, in a street race on an elevated temporary track, crowds gathered in the rain to watch a man pursue a record. Because the two fastest men in the world (for whatever reason) cannot seem to meet shoulder to shoulder, we were reduced to giving our time, attention and money to something far beneath our expectations.

Yes, there were other competitors in that race, but we all knew it was going to come down to one very fast man chasing another man's shadow.

In the end, it was a good training run.

Though he didn't catch the shadow, Tyson Gay confirmed his fitness and preparation on his journey to Daegu. For me, the momentary thrill is all but forgotten.

As for the drama in Tuscon, my heart is still glowing.

The dichotomy reminded me of an article I had penned some time ago, originally written in defense of the simplicity of our sport.

I thought it appropriate to present it here again—somewhat revised—in light of last weekend's action. ~

The common kitchen match.

It's been around for nearly two centuries, essentially unchanged. Today's high-tech geniuses have not come up with a cheaper, safer, more portable source of fire.

John Browning's Colt .45 pistol.

In an age where a missile can be guided through a knothole from outer space, Browning's 1911 design is still without peer in regard to efficiency and reliability.

The Great White shark.

No frills. No attractive lures. It sees what it wants and gets it. Over millennia, it has not changed or evolved. The perfect killing machine has no need to adapt.

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Since man first became aware of his own existence, he followed a pattern observed in his fellow four-legged creatures: a playful pre-enactment of more serious matters to come.

Just as young pups and adolescent colts playfully practiced for future survival, humans engaged in games, mimicking the skills necessary for hunting and warfare.

Running, jumping, throwing. Strength, agility, speed. An inborn competitive spirit drove man to seek the fastest, the strongest, the most enduring.

And such was the genesis of what we now call track and field.

The basic elements of our sport have not changed over the centuries. It still comes down to a single individual, sometimes with a single implement, striving against an opponent to determine how fast, how high or how far.

No frills, clothed only in the essentials, rain or shine. Competition in its most raw and fundamental form. This is why the sport appeals to me.

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Lately the sport has lost some of its popularity. Some blame drugs. Some blame a lack of competent media. Others say not enough head-to-head competition.

Perhaps American track and field suffers most from a wound inflicted by our own government. At the height of the sport's golden age, the American and Soviet Olympic boycotts did more lasting harm to the sport than good for the world.

Whatever the reasons, the way back into the public's heart is by keeping it simple.

Simple, as in "the cream always rises to the top."

Simple, as in "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."

Yes, simplicity, as in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

  The temptation by those in power, to right the sport's ship, may tend toward the ways of the world, offering more techno-glitz and gimmicks.

How can we blame the casual fan, whose only real interest in track and field is piqued during an Olympic year, when we ourselves substitute staged "productions" for real competition—except in the rare, "big" meets?

While we do live in a techno-centric world, the key is to wisely use the technology—not be used by it.

Given track and field's steady popularity over the decades (might we even say centuries?), perhaps a look back would be more productive in searching for answers.

The current down cycle in the sport is but a blip in the grand scheme of things.

Track and field has endured the fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Crusades, the Industrial Revolution, two world wars and the Beatles. Through it all, it has maintained its purity, simplicity and integrity.

Society is not the constant in this equation. Our sport is.

Last Saturday night, I was hunched over my keyboard, feverishly clicking from site to site, eager to get the latest results from Arizona. With no live television coverage, I was left with only my imagination and a few incoming numbers.

It was a conference championship meet—not of world, or even national significance. But because it was contested with such a gut-level, flesh-and-bone, pure and simple intensity, the drama was automatic.

I would rate it as one of the top-10 track meets I have ever "witnessed."

If that Pac-10 Conference Championship meet had somehow been televised globally, a whole new generation of track fans would now be on board. Guaranteed.

No gimmicks. No fancy lures. Just faster, higher, further.

The beauty was in the simplicity.

Rojofact: The Ancient Olympic Pentathlon, first introduced in 708 BC, foreshadowed the multiple events of modern track and field. It included the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw, a stadion foot race and wrestling.

(Fox Sports Net will broadcast a two hour recorded version of the Pac-10 Championships on Thursday, May 19 at 5pm PT in the northwest region. Check local listings for broadcast time in your area.)

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