Track's popularity soars despite lack of U.S. star power

Runners in the 4x400-meter relay stream past more than 54,000 fans at the Penn Relays last month. The Philadelphia event attracted a record crowd, signalling the sport's revival after a decade of doping scandals.
Runners in the 4x400-meter relay stream past more than 54,000 fans at the Penn Relays last month. The Philadelphia event attracted a record crowd, signalling the sport's revival after a decade of doping scandals. (Photos By Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

For the first time in decades, track and field features no transcendent or even dominant American star, and none appears on the horizon. There is no Carl Lewis. No Flo Jo. No Michael Johnson. No Marion Jones.

Yet a record crowd of 54,000 jammed a track meet in Philadelphia on April 24 to watch a competition dubbed "USA vs. The World" that showcased megastar Usain Bolt, a Jamaican sprint genius who routinely wins short races by extraordinary margins.

And, perhaps even more notably, another 63,000 showed up for collegiate, high school and senior track and field competition in the two days before Bolt arrived.

Event attendance, nationwide membership numbers and U.S. television ratings are up, or holding steady, even without a single household name on the U.S. track and field team and dwindling coverage of the sport from the mainstream media.

Bolt's astonishing feats and charismatic personality have caught the attention of a broad, non-running audience, a significant development as track and field fights to rebuild after a decade in which myriad doping busts devastated its record books and credibility. But officials say there is more behind the encouraging numbers.

They say years of Web-based communication and an emphasis on social media have allowed the sport to foster a strong, under-the-radar connection to a large audience of track geeks while continually welcoming curious Web explorers, some of whom eventually become new fans. And some say the recession, which has hurt participation in more expensive sports, has compelled more kids and adults to get out their running shoes.

"Running," said agent Ray Flynn, who represents 47 U.S. track and field athletes, "has become cool again."

An attitude shift

USATF is happy to clutch onto Bolt's coattails as his legend soars, but the organization and its athletes also remain desperate to regain the stature U.S. track had before the early 2000s drug scandals put a major dent in public perception.

Jones, who served prison time for lying about her role in a performance-enhancing drug ring and was forced to relinquish her five Olympic medals, might still be the sport's best-known American female despite the fact she hasn't competed in four years and is beginning a new career in the WNBA.

"We've had a few downs," said DeeDee Trotter, an Olympic gold medal winner in the 4x400 relay. "Something like the phenomenon of Usain Bolt is something we need to feed off of."

Among the top U.S. athletes, there has been a notable attitude shift; the prima donna behavior once characteristic of the sport's biggest U.S. stars -- and seemingly encouraged by their media-wary track agents -- has largely disappeared in what USA Track and Field officials cautiously hope will evolve into something of a post-drugs, get-to-know-our-athletes era. Now, most track athletes embrace interview requests, and when those requests aren't forthcoming, they seem determined to create their own buzz. (Consider that the 2000 U.S. Olympic track and field trials drew 2,000 media credential requests; by 2004, that figure dropped to 1,400; and in 2008, it fell to 800.)

At the recent world indoor championships in Doha, Qatar, 17 athletes on the U.S. team sent out live tweets from their Twitter accounts (and many also updated their Facebook pages). World 400-meter champion Sanya Richards-Ross, who recently married New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross, is a runner first and multimedia company second; she goes so far as to post footage of mundane life events among her 38 YouTube videoblogs. Even USATF Chief Executive Officer Doug Logan blogs, often using surprisingly frank language as he ruminates on http://www.usatf.org.


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