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

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; D01

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

"I think everyone is" using social media, said Allyson Felix, the reigning 200-meter world champion who has more than 5,000 followers on Twitter. "I think you really have to get creative. We're an Olympic sport; we have to really get out and reach people . . . Social media is a great way of really pulling everyone in."

Track and field also attracts arguably the most sophisticated Web and blog coverage of any non-major U.S. sport through powerhouse sites such as and Robert and Weldon Johnson, brothers who began in 2000, say Web traffic has increased every year -- especially recently. Last year, unique visitors to increased 24 percent over 2008, and the first four months of this year have shown an even bigger boost: 52 percent over 2008.

Meantime, USATF membership has grown by 30 percent to nearly 100,000 since 2001, with a 12 percent leap and a 10,000-member increase between 2008 and 2009. Television ratings -- though small by the standards of professional or collegiate football, pro and college basketball and baseball -- routinely beat the WNBA, NHL and Major League Soccer. Said Logan, who was MLS's first commissioner, "in soccer, we would have killed for the ratings we're getting right now."

And attendance at the handful of outdoor meets held in the United States is growing or staying steady. The Reebok Grand Prix (now the Adidas Grand Prix) on Randall's Island in New York drew 5,000 fans in 2007, 10,000 in 2008 and more than 11,000 last year. Record crowds are expected to show up to see Bolt this June.

"I hope [track] is on the way back," Felix said. "I think we're at a nice place now. Your average everyday person knows who Usain Bolt is. Everyone says, 'Oh, you run track -- do you know Usain Bolt?'

"I say, 'Yeah, and I run, too.' It starts a conversation."

The Bolt effect

Bolt, 23, is considered the largest reason for the sport's resurrection, a rebirth U.S. athletes are happy to capitalize on -- even while Bolt is busy kicking their behinds. Bolt not only lowered the world records in the prestigious 100 and 200 sprints at the last two major championships (the 2008 Olympics and '09 world championships) but also obliterated the competition so thoroughly even casual sports fans can't resist replaying the spectacle.

There have been more than 2 million views of Bolt's most recent world-record-setting 100 victory on YouTube. (In that race, American Tyson Gay posted a time unmatched by any U.S. sprinter in history and got demolished.)

"Over the past two years, I've been surprised by the amount of people that know me or the welcome I get at track meets," Bolt said before departing Philadelphia after the Penn Relays meet. "For me, I'm still getting used to it."

During his lone race in Philadelphia, Bolt so quickly distanced himself from American Ivory Williams -- one of the nation's top male sprinters -- in the homestretch, the only interesting element was: How big would the victory margin be? Even so, Americans haven't minded being the background singers to Bolt's solo act.

"Any one person who gets attention for the sport as a whole is good for all of us," said Lashinda Demus, a two-time world outdoor silver medalist. "If we can use Bolt, we're going to use Bolt."

No superstar athlete of this era can escape doping suspicions, but Bolt showed hints of being a sprint phenom in his youth, and his long legs (he stands 6 feet 5) simply cover more ground than those of his rivals -- two facts that make his implausible speed seem more plausible. And despite the lingering associations, drug busts have grown more infrequent at the top levels of track and field while other U.S. professional sports have weathered their own steroid storms.

When 2008 Olympic gold medal winner LaShawn Merritt announced as the Penn Relays got underway that he had tested positive for a steroid, Logan immediately dismissed Merritt as a scoundrel and anomaly, putting as much distance between the sport and an association with drugs as he could muster.

"For a couple of years, the cloud of drugs took everything out of our sport," Richards-Ross said. But "I think there is a newfound love. People are having more faith in the top athletes again."

Bolt has joined the sport's Web-based public relations outreach, helping to shape the world view of himself. He doesn't just run, he also tweets. (He has more than 37,000 followers on Twitter.) He dances; he can be seen unveiling various moves in nightclubs on YouTube. He posts videos and articles on his Facebook page. Unlike the buttoned-down Tiger Woods and the super-intense Michael Phelps, Bolt plays to the crowd and engages with fans -- even, at times, while in the midst of races.

And Bolt is committed to running in at least seven events around the world in the coming months, including June 12 in New York, to help kick off a new 14-meet track series called the Diamond League created by the world sport governing body (IAAF). "The Bolt thing is crazy; everyone knows who he is," Weldon Johnson said. "Even Nike couldn't come up with a name like that. Everyone can relate to him."

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