In the midst of covering the U.S. Olympic Trials, I was asked on a radio show to explain why anyone should care about track and field. Why pay attention to a sport that has let us down with its drug use time and time again, that gives us athletes to root for once every four years? How can any of it possibly matter at the same time that the ins and outs of A-Rod's home life are right there for the dissecting?
The sounds of the Trials give the answers.
On the final day of the meet, the voices of three of the last competitors on the University of Oregon's Hayward Field told a story. Lopez Lomong, who immigrated to the States when he was 16 to start a new life, had just finished third in the 1,500 meters. He'd overcome not just a talented field to earn his trip to Beijing but also a horrific childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp after rebel soldiers in Sudan took him from his parents. From the medal stand, in the last of his four languages (he speaks Arabic, Boya, Swahili and "a little bit of English"), he shouted, "Thank you, America!"
The race's runner-up, Leonel Manzano, was born in Mexico, moved to Texas at 4 and won three NCAA titles with the Longhorns. In one of his four languages (Spanish, English, a little Portuguese and Texan), he shouted "¡Muchas gracias!" The winner, Bernard Lagat—who came to the U.S. from Kenya in 1996 to attend college, became a citizen in 2004 and won two world titles last year—used one of his three languages (Nandi, Swahili, English) to describe what it felt like to make the U.S. team. "This," he said, "is the American dream."
It's one of the wonderful sidelights of track: What you hear is more worldly, diverse and reflective than the "gotta make plays" videotape filler dealt by NFL and MLB superstars. It's generally more fun, too.
Wallace Spearmon Jr., thrilled at making the team in the 200 after a ferocious close, wasted little time in taking a shot at his coach: "I'm looking at this guy over there who's crying and trying to hide—Mr. Spearmon Sr. He's scared of cameras and reporters, so y'all hound him when you get done here." But Pops gave it right back. When informed of his son's thoughts on training for Beijing, he smiled, saying, "He said he's going to be doing more 400s, but I'm the coach. That's not in the plan."
The voices in track these days are more honest than those in other sports, even about doping. Anthony Famiglietti, winner of the 3,000-meter steeplechase, is a native New Yorker who lives in Tennessee, studies Buddhism and attends Methodist and Baptist services. He wears a beard now; the first time he ran in Beijing, in 2001, he sported a Mohawk. After his win in Eugene, he said his goal was Olympic bronze. Not gold? "There's going to be people out there who cheat," he said. "I live in reality. But maybe I can sneak in and steal it from one of those dirty jerks and get the bronze."
Yes, the sport has its problems. But American fans disowning track is a little like Brazilians shunning soccer or Dominicans bailing on baseball. It's part of our heritage. Jesse Owens. Wilma Rudolph. Jim Freaking Thorpe. And the U.S. is still better at it, top to bottom, than anyone else. This America's team has unbeatable weight guys, the usual deep pool of sprinters and, for the first time in a generation, terrific distance runners. There should be more where that came from too. Track athletes outnumber all other participants in high school sports.
There's potential for a great future. At the trials, 16-year-old Jordan Hasay, whose body weight must be 70% ponytail, made the finals of the women's 1,500, prompting the pro-Ducks crowd to chant, "Come to Or-e-gon!" Earlier in the week, 18-year-old Jeffrey Demps set the world junior 100-meter mark at 10.01 seconds.
And let's not forget that chances are good the guys we watch on gridirons on Saturdays and Sundays grew up running track. (Take note, SEC fans: Demps will be a running back for the Gators this fall.) This is the sport that lays the foundation for the speed, strength and endurance that keeps other sports entertaining. What's the NFL combine, after all, but an ersatz track meet?
Point is, the rewards of track are many. The roar of the Hayward Field crowd when Tyson Gay ran the fastest (okay, wind-aided) 100 meters ever was matched in intensity only by the stunned silence that followed the pop of his hammy in the 200. And when three Oregon-based runners flew down the stretch to qualify for Beijing in the 800, with Christian Smith claiming the final spot thanks to a skin-peeling dive to the finish line … well, words on a page can't do a moment like that justice.
You had to hear it.