January 27, 2004

Millrose's Race Heats up Winter

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Picture this: a screaming fan in the front row cheering on his team. The other fans behind him don’t appreciate his blocking their view and ask him to sit down. He says no, and turns around to continue cheering. Further pleas are ignored, until a shouting match ensues, and the whole section becomes engulfed in turmoil.

Is this a scene from a past Super Bowl?

Nope.

A heated NBA game?

No.

It’s the Millrose Games, America’s premier indoor track meet, held at Madison Square Garden. As an attendee of the games since 1986 (I was 2 and a half at the time), I witnessed the above scene in person, and it ranks as the funniest occurrence I have witnessed at a sporting event.

The games have been held since 1908, and annually since 1914 at the Garden, making it the longest running sporting event in the venue’s history. In the past, track stars such as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have all competed at the Millrose Games.

While track and field remains in the corner of the eye of the sports world, there was no sporting event I looked forward to more than the Games each February. My grandfather, a runner in high school and college, first started attending the games in the 1940’s, and it eventually became a yearly family tradition.

Entering the concourse of the Garden with the games in full swing was a scene to behold. The Garden’s steeply banked track circled the large infield, where pole vaulters and high jumpers raced toward their respective bars. The night started out with a slew of long-distance races, before the banks were lowered to get ready for the sprints.

Stopwatches in hand, the entire arena waited in anticipation for the start of the 60-meter dash and hurdles, and everyone thought they could better time the race than the official timekeeper (including my grandfather). The arena grew silent as the runners readied in their starting blocks. The crack of the pistol sounded, and the runners were off — and then they were done.

In less than 10 seconds.

There were many characters attending the games. There was the occasional celebrity sighting (Bill Cosby was a regular attendee), along with a fair share of drunken 30-year olds who would try to steal your seat if you should get up for even a second. Then there were the track buffs who maybe took everything a little too seriously. In the story above, the fan in question was rooting for his alma mater in the boys’ catholic high school 4X400m relay.

The belligerent fan is the exception at the games, as the entire crowd will rally around a runner who is on the verge of shattering records. In 1980, Millrose great Mary Decker-Slaney was midway through the mile on world record pace, and when that announcement came on over the PA, the Garden crowd came to its feet to cheer her on. After setting the record, Decker-Slaney credited the crowd as helping her maintain her record pace.

As the evening progressed, the marquee event of the night approached: the famed Wanamaker Mile. The Mile started at 10 p.m. on the dot year after year. Why so late? Well, back in the 1930’s, sports announcer Ted Husing broadcasted the Mile live on his show, and the tradition continues today.

While normally the National Anthem is played at the start of a sporting event, at the Millrose Games, it isn’t played until the Wanamaker Mile. With the runners poised to start the 11-lap race, the Garden crowd rises to its feet. In recent times, runners from Ireland have dominated this event. Two of the greatest athletes in Millrose Games history, Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O’Sullivan, combined to win the event 12 times.

In 1998, O’Sullivan came into the Millrose Games having run 99 sub-four minute miles in his career. One more, and he would become only the third and probably the last runner to run 100 sub-four minute miles. Needless to say, the excitement in the Garden was even more than usual for this event. As the runners came around the final turn, everyone held his collective breath.

When O’Sullivan crossed the finish line, the Garden erupted as the scoreboard showed O’Sullivan’s time at 3:58.10. It was that rare instance in sports where no one really cared who won (O’Sullivan came in third).

With the Summer Olympics coming up later this year, there will be plenty of Olympic hopefuls at the games, including Marion Jones, in her first Millrose appearance, and 18-year old phenom Allyson Felix, the 2003 Gatorade High School Athlete of the year. While I haven’t been able to attend the Millrose Games for several years, I hope to resume the family tradition in the near future.


Archived article by Jonathan Auerbach

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