Track and Field 2016.
What I hope to see, 2 predictions, and what I look forward to in 2016.
Quick note – I have no authority and little to zero influence over anything in the running world, but thanks for reading anyway!
Prediction #1: 2016 will be a make or break year for professional track & field– especially in the US
To clarify – We will look back on the year 2016 in 5, 10, 20 years as the year that triggered exponential growth for all things elite track & field or as the beginning of the end for the way professional track & field operates as we now know it. Either Governing bodies take the necessary steps to fix the sport, the system proves it works, marketing efforts are done correctly, the stars of the sport get bigger, the fan base grows significantly and connects with athletes and it all can be traced back to 2016 OR we look back at 2016 as the year professional track & field hit rock bottom. We realize the current system is not only broken but can’t be fixed, the most die-hard fans leave the sport and a complete overhaul of the way professional track operates is the only option that remains.
It’s a new year and optimism is running high. I’m going to go with option 1.
Before getting into all of this, let’s just remember it’s now 2016 – which means it’s an Olympic year!!!!!
Track & field’s popularity is cyclical. On a micro scale – annually – the peak is the Global Championships. On a macro scale popularity moves in four-year cycles – with the peak during the Olympics and the trough during years without a championship. It’s a problem with the sport but it’s also an opportunity. This is one of those years that track is back in the spotlight. It’s a chance to increase the overall fan base of the sport and an opportunity for athletes to capitalize with the world watching.
So, will the leaders of track & field take advantage?
Will we see the sport use positive stories to emotionally connect with the casual sports fan?
People want to connect with athletes. You become a fan of something when you feel emotionally invested. Track does a poor job with this. It’s difficult to pick an athlete to cheer for. Why? Because we don’t know anything about the athletes. We are given a list of personal records, which means nothing to most people. That won’t work. Stories work. The stories have to be brought to the forefront. We need backstories on athletes – the journey to get to where they are. We need stories on the meets and races, why is it important? We want to see people overcoming odds – how hard they worked. We to know what is on the line. Then it’s up to the athletes to deliver. It’s a year for athletes to become household names – a chance to be more than just a track & field athlete – to become a sports figure.
Track & Field broadcaster & blogger, Toni Reavis shares this sentiment. From his blog:
“Stories are what move and engage people, not simply performances, which are track & field’s versions of special effects. Performances are great, but they should come in the service of a larger narrative. That means good guys and bad guys, high stakes and cliff-hangers, not an endless series of athletic exhibitions by athletes running around in shoe company gear that never add up to anything.”
I enjoy the the performances. It’s something that gets me excited, but I also know what i’m looking for, I know what times are considered exceptional, I know what the records are and who is expected to do well and who isn’t. To the non-fanatic, times and records (aside from a world record) don’t mean much. It’s the stories surrounding athletes that people can anchor to and connect with.
So let’s share the stories.
There isn’t much time to make the most of the year. The build up to the Olympics has started. The commercials are already airing. In just 9 months track & field will be back into the abyss of niche sports. Will it have picked up more fans and stars?
Prediction #2: Doping news will continue to dominate headlines
The storm has just started, and will likely get worse before it gets better.
The former head of WADA, Dick Pound, said:
“Kenya has a real problem and have been very slow to acknowledge it,” Pound said. And: “It’s probably the tip of the iceberg. Russia is not the only country and athletics is not the only sport with a doping problem.”
More doping. More countries. More sports. If 2015 was consecutive jabs to the kidneys, 2016 could be the finishing haymaker to the face.
The sport has huge unanswered questions surrounding doping and we can expect more doping related headlines. What more will come out about IAAF cover-ups of failed doping tests? Will more evidence be presented against IAAF President Lamine Diack and the charges against him of active corruption? Will Russia be allowed to compete in the Olympics? Will Athletics Kenya be prosecuted for alleged corruption?
Doping is a massive problem in the sport. I’m more skeptical than most when it comes to drug use. I assume the worst. I’m still a fan of track, though. While doping news creates a negative cloud around the sport, the investigations and questions shouldn’t stop. What needs to happen is a change of attitude towards anti-doping. Every time a doping related story drops there seems to be more hate towards the sport. Why is this? Why does it feel like the sport loses fans when drug cheats are caught? Shouldn’t it be a cause for celebration? Shouldn’t the public be thankful when corruption is exposed? It means the sport is moving in the right direction. I get frustrated when we we go months or years between major drug busts. Why? Because when people get caught it means the system is working. It means someone cares about a clean sport.
I may be cynical but I believe people will always cheat. This isn’t just in track & field. People will cheat you in line, cheat in card games, cheat investors, etc.. When money, fame, winning or losing is on the line, someone is bound to cheat. That’s why I get excited when there is a bust. It’s why I’m more optimistic about the future of elite running/track & field after 2015. I look forward to the continued fallout in 2016. Catching drug cheaters, while unfortunate that they exist, is exciting and should be celebrated.
Consider what Robert Johnson, of Letsrun wrote:
Instead of reacting along the lines of, ‘Oh my god, this is awful. Star athlete John Doe has tested positive,’ I hope in the years to come that doping positives are almost trumpeted with glee, ‘We have exciting news to report. We’ve busted Star athlete John Doe – the immoral cheat who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars – and they are out of the sport for four years. We know there are other cheats out there and while we can’t catch them all, we’ll do our very best.’
Doesn’t that sound like a better, more effective approach to the matter? Track & field could be a leader in the clean sport movement if this was the attitude. Other sports would emulate the approach to create an equal playing field.
So, in 2016 I hope to see doping news turned from a negative to a positive.
At a Crossroads
Between the Olympics ahead and more doping news to look forward to, the sport is at a crossroads. This is a make or break moment. This is an opportunity that might not come around again. The sport can go in one of two directions now.
1. It can win back the public’s trust and build up the fan base. Scrutiny and interest will be higher than ever this year. Will officials, starting with IAAF President Seb Coe, show athletes and the public that they are committed to fixing the problems with track and field or will bad actors be let off the hook once again with weak punishments and sanctions?
Doping is not just a track & field problem. But it needs to be a worldwide leader and champion for clean sport. In doing so, clean athletes will be able to push the sport to new heights as the cloud of skepticism will dissipate. This is the year to do it.
My suggestion on where to start to earn back the trust of athletes and fans? Clean house at the IAAF – starting with President Seb Coe. Start over. How can you trust the people in place to fix track & field if they are part of the reason it’s broken? The current form of the IAAF doesn’t work.
2. It can lose credibility and fans for years to come. The governing bodies of the sport can keep things status quo. Governing officials can continue to put themselves before the needs of athletes and, maybe more damaging, the fans. Without strong action the sport will lose face, if it hasn’t already. Even the diehard fans will lose faith. How many negative news headlines before a person decides they’ve had enough – bribery, drug-cheats, cover-ups? And all the while it seems that nothing is being done to fix it. The same people are in place. People that must have had knowledge of these transgressions and yet they remain in their positions. In some cases, they got a promotion. Can you blame a person for losing interest in track & field? A person reading about this must think, “Well shit, if the sport’s governing officials don’t care, then why should I?”
What to look forward to in 2016
Okay, so while we all think of ways to make the sport better, let’s look ahead to what the year has in store. Running fans THIS IS THE YEAR FOR YOU! It’s almost laughable how much there is to look forward to in 2016. Here is what I’m most excited about in 2016:
US Marathon Olympic Trials – February 13 – Los Angeles, CA
There are endless stories surrounding this one.
Will 40-year-old Meb Keflezighi make another team. Will we see the future of men’s marathon running with someone like Diego Estrada or Luke Puskedra making the team?
Will Galen Rupp run?
Will Shalane Flanagan continue her dominance over the distance? Will Kara Goucher continue her comeback straight on to an Olympic team? Who will assert themselves as the next great American marathoner?
The race takes place in one of the US’s largest markets – LA. The course is spectator friendly. This will be 26.2 miles of strategy and high stakes racing.
US Indoor Track & Field Championships – March 11-12 – Portland, OR
This meet usually doesn’t get much love, but this year is different.
The World Indoor Championships take place in Portland just a week later.
Not all the big names will compete at the indoor championships, with the Olympic Trials and Games the focal point this year, but plenty of stars will run.
Track Town USA and Portland are putting a lot into this event and it should be the 2nd best meet featuring US athletes this year.
Only two athletes go to World’s per event, so making a team, even for the best athletes, will be difficult.
World Indoor Championships – March 17-20 – Portland, OR
That’s right, for the first time in nearly 30 years (Indianapolis 1987) the US is hosting the Indoor World Championships and it should not disappoint.
More than 600 athletes from as many as 200 countries will flock to the Oregon Convention Center where 7,000 spectators can watch the events in person.
This meet will get the juices flowing for the Olympic Trials and Rio later in the summer.
Plus take a look at the track concept.
US Olympic Trials – July 1-10 – Eugene, OR
Back to Oregon again for the Olympic Track & Field Trials. There is NO event like this one on US soil.
If you are at all thinking about going, let me help you make the decision. GO! Seriously. Outside of the London 2012 Olympics – watching an 800m World Record get broken in front 70,000 insane spectators – this is the meet I remember most.
Eugene put on a great meet in 2012 and I have no reason to believe 2016 will be any different. The stakes are higher in Olympic years. The tension in the air is nearly palpable. In 2012, there was a big beer garden, bands played on a stage, extra seating is brought in to seat nearly 20,000 people. It will be full.
Olympic Games – August 12-21 – Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Not much needs to be said about this one. It’s the pinnacle of sport. The world will be watching. This is where legends are made. Greatness is on the line. An Olympic medal is for grabs, there isn’t much that measures up with that.
This is as good as it gets for a US running fan. There are a number of other races to look forward to this year, especially in the US – Prefontaine Classic, Penn Relays, major marathons, high performance events – but the Olympics are a step above. So gear up running fans, figure out a way to go attend one of these races, set your DVR, invite a non-running fan (maybe watching will #ConvertNRF).
Sit back and enjoy the year. Time to go for a run.