The 100m champion is known as “the fastest man [or woman] in the world.” Yet the sport of track and field does not fascinate the everyday public in the same way as mainstream sports like basketball and football.
The Olympics, however, traditionally put the sport in the spotlight — pumping up track’s national profile.
“[The media] play it up,” said junior sprinter Jessica Weyman. “[Events] like distance, they can be a little boring. So they cut between that [and other events]. People who don’t even know [about track] have been watching.”
In the 2008 Beijing Games, the well-hyped American contingent finished with 23 total medals: seven gold, nine silver and seven bronze. Angelo Taylor, Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson swept the 400m hurdles, Stephanie Brown Trafton won the United States’ first gold medal in women’s discus since 1932, and decathlete Bryan Clay took home the top prize.
But even with the spike in popularity that comes with the Olympic Games, track and field faced stiffer competition this summer for media coverage.
“Every morning, I wake up and it’s basketball [on TV],” Weyman said. “You have to look for [track].”
Bad luck plagued the U.S. squad in Beijing this summer. Hampered by an injury, 2007 100m and 200m world champion Tyson Gay didn’t make the final. Both the men’s and women’s 4x100m relay teams dropped the baton and failed to make the finals.
The sport has weathered some tough times recently, with former golden girl Marion Jones as the poster child for steroids in track. Now athletes in both track and swimming are making an effort to fix that damage done to these novelty sports’ reputations.
One individual can change the entire course of a sport. In the case of swimming, Michael Phelps blazed a path in water. On land, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt filled that role for track and field.
“If people are expecting a great performance, they’re going to watch,” said junior pole vaulter Natalie Gengel. “Usain Bolt will definitely raise track’s profile.”
“When people start breaking world records, everyone’s head is turned,” Weyman added.
In terms of medal count, the U.S. tallied two fewer track and field medals than the 2004 Athens Olympics and three more than the 2000 Games in Sydney.
After overseeing 10 years of rapid growth, Craig A. Masback announced in January that he would be stepping down as CEO of USA Track & Field. Everything from revenues to attendance at U.S. track meets to participation in road running and school-based track and field flourished over this period.
Compared to those years, however, when beloved national track heroes such as Michael Johnson and Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith-Joyner took center stage in the world, the sport has been overshadowed this summer by swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps.
“All the other sports definitely have a bigger profile,” Gengel said, “even though I watched at least three world records at these Olympics.”
Gengel also pointed out that track suffers from competition within the sport as well as from other sports. She felt that her event, the pole vault, was slighted by the media coverage in Beijing.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Gengel said, “because pole vault did not get the attention it deserved. They showed the entire 200, and pole vault got maybe four minutes on each side [men’s and women’s].”
Even if the public’s recognition of track and field suffers, the sport’s prominence, or lack thereof, in the Games is close to the heart of Cornell’s track and field athletes.
“It makes me more excited to be here,” Weyman said. “I watched my own race on TV, the 400 hurdle, and some 19-year-old girl was competing for the U.S. My event, my age. It’s amazing to see people … that dedicated.”