Old Track and Field Stadium

How to make track & field relevant again

The following is an excerpt from British marathon legend and 2:07:13 man Steve Jones talking to Competitor.com about how he thinks the running industry has hurt the sport. Jones is as old school and blue collar as they come and isn’t thrilled with today’s world of pacemakers, heart-rate monitors, energy drinks and other gimmicks.

“Mass participation has hurt the sport, in my mind. It’s made a lot of people a lot of money. I have to be careful what I say because I get called out on it sometimes, but I don’t believe that starting and finishing a marathon makes you a marathoner. I don’t believe that. If you’re racing it to go as fast as you can, that’s completely different than being part of an event and just wanting to get from point A to point B. …”
“The industry is huge, and the industry is running the sport now, not the sport running the industry. … The focus has changed and now there are absurd headlines, and I have to say, you are just as guilty, publishing articles like ‘5 Weeks to a Faster 5K’ or ’10 Weeks to a Marathon PR.’ It’s bullshit. It’s just selling magazines or it just caters to people who are running 4 hours for a marathon or 25 minutes for a 5K.”

The first part of the Steve Jones quote, I disagree with. I think anyone who finishes a marathon can call themselves a marathoner. The person who graduates last in their class from medical school is still called a doctor. Event organizers have suggested that we do a better job “distinguishing” the elite athletes from recreational athletes. It doesn’t matter how we choose to define the difference between distinguish or separate because at the end of the day, the only definition that matters is how our product is perceived by the masses. We may call it distinguishing, but if the masses feel separated, then separation is what it is. Besides, the performances of athletes serves the purpose, and is the single best way of distinguishing the elite from the rest, and on top of that there are medals, and prize money, and a bunch of other secondary level distinguishing crap. Performances don’t lie. Sprinticity club takes a very inclusive approach and there is range of talent, but even the slower runners can feel included in our community and proudly call themselves sprinters. We don’t even try to distinguish between track & field and other sports, because like I said, it doesn’t matter how we try to define it; what matters is what the athlete feels. So we end up teaching sprint mechanics to athletes from soccer, football, rugby, baseball, bobsled, lacrosse, etc. and many of them continue to identify as athletes from those other sports… and that’s perfectly fine with me. Some of them love what we do so much that they end up converting and calling themselves track athletes, but it’s not up to me to pick an athletic identity for our members. The only thing I focus on is offering the best possible experience.

That brings me to the second half of the Steve Jones quote which I sort of agree with. There is a lot of bull s**t out there aimed at the masses with the goal of making money. (Sarcasm warning–>) I might have to start Sprinticity Magazine to boost our club budget with headlines like “5 Drills That Will Make You Run Faster”. But anyone in-the-know will realize how ridiculous something like that is, because it is just a list of ingredients. It still takes a coach to be the chef and put the ingredients together into a coherent program (is this analogy used at all USATF coaching schools?). I began track & field in middle school as cross training for soccer and basketball. I consumed many of these “tips and tricks” articles hoping to improve, but it really took a good coach to help me achieve results. What started off as cross training eventually grew into a love for track & field because I could appreciate the process. I understood the performances that I witnessed. I could picture myself in those big races and identify with the sport. Trust me, someone who hasn’t trained and engaged in track has no idea what it means when I talk about the difference between 11.00 vs. 10.50 in the 100m. That’s only half a second right?

To end, I’ll try to offer some thoughts on the topic of systemic growth for our sport. I believe there is a huge opportunity to collaborate with other sports. We have to be better about introducing track & field to athletes regardless of age, ability level, or how they identify as an athlete. I’ll use soccer as an example because it is familiar to me. If I want to improve my ball skills, I won’t ask a track coach. If I want to get faster, I’m not going to seek out a soccer coach. But being fast, and having good ball skills are both critical to developing as a good soccer player, so I need both experts in order to maximize my potential. This is where Sprinticity can be really valuable to the community, because we can offer expertise in speed and be complementary to other sports. Through the participation in our program, our athletes start to understand, appreciate, and get excited by track & field as a sport. Running under 10 seconds in the 100m is given a contextualized meaning. Without that context, outsiders just see the sport as people running with meaningless numbers that pop up on the clock at the end. It’s the same way that many older people I talk to find soccer boring. Well, the fact is that a generation ago soccer wasn’t one of the big sports in America. Many folks in that generation grew up without having participated in soccer at a level that would demand an understanding of the intricate tactics and appreciation for the technical ability displayed by elite players. But today, soccer participation is growing very rapidly and interest in the game from the masses is reflecting that growth. That is the challenge for our sport. Get people involved, even if it means meeting them halfway. Show them what participation in track & field can do to benefit them, and in time, they may even grow to love the sport.