On Sunday, May 10, observed Phil Stewart, president of the D.C. Road Runners and associate publisher of Running Times, an amateur runner in the Washington area looking for an organized competitive foot race faced a surfeit of possibilities -- 11 races.
"There was the 10-K Bonne Bell, a six-mile race at the Pierce Street Annex, a 15-K Mothers' Day Special, a 10-mile race in Columbia, Md., and seven others scattered around the area," said Stewart. So popular has the sport of running become, he continued, that he expects the number of organized races to proliferate.
Paradoxically, Al Cantello, track and cross-country coach at the Naval Academy, says despite running's surge in popularity, he's seriously concerned about the long-term prospects for track and field.chiefly because of the costs.
"It costs $5,000 just to have a pole vault when you count in the pit, the pole, the crossbars and everything else," said Cantello. "I ran a meet last week, and I used 48 officials."
The contrast between the differing perceptions of Stewart and Cantello is but one illustration of a truth that is virtually certain to have a profound effect on most of the so-called minor sports over the coming years.
As costs escalate, participation in such relatively inexpensive sports as road-running, bicycling and bowling are likely to increase. More expensive forms of athletics, such as gymnastics, will suffer while track and field, especially at the college level, will become a ready target for hard-pressed directors of athletics looking for ways to cut costs.
"The only things that are going to sustain the track programs are a strong track tradition or a very dynamic track coach with a lot of chutzpah," says Cantello, a 1960 Olympian and a track coach for 18 years.
John Cook, track coach at Fairfax County's George Mason University, says an NCAA move two years ago to cut the maximum number of track scholarships per institution from 26 to 14 will further erode the viability of collegiate track programs, although he says they are flourishing at the high school and postgraduate club level.
"NCAA is not carrying the ball in terms of putting money into what they consider minor sports," said Cook.
By contrast, the road-running boom has reached the point where many of the established foot races are full -- the 1981 Perrier Cherry Blossom Race drew a field of 4,500 and turned 8,000 away in only its ninth year of running -- and the only way to accommodate the burgeoning corps of runners is to create more races, says Stewart.
"The big races don't seem to be growing in size, but the number of races is increasing," he said. "Races like Peachtree and Bay-to-Breakers are drawing 25,000 to 30,000 people, but they are no longer doubling in size they way they did in the mid-1970s.
"More and more runners are going for the smaller races. They hear the gun go off, but then it takes them 2 1/2 to three minutes before they cross the starting line. And a lot of runners now, in addition to getting tired of running in the big races, are getting tired of paying $5 to $10 to get in a race.
"The thing getting all the headlines now is the coming of a professional running circuit -- direct, above-board payments to the top runners, essentially legitimizing what is going on right now. That could be the start of a second running boom."
Mobil Oil is considering a proposal to sponsor an indoor track meet Jan. 8 at Capital Centre that would be the first meet on a 10-stop Grand Prix circuit.
Gymnastics, which underwent a surge in popularity following extensive media coverage of Olga Korbut and Nadia Commaneci in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, suffered from the U.S. Olympic boycott and television blackout in 1980 and is particularly vulnerable to the money crunch that has hit virtually all facets of the economy.
"Gymnastics is not as much of a household word as it was in the 1970s. The boycott really hurt," said Greg Weiss, a gymnastics coach who operates MG Gymnastics in the Maryland suburbs with his wife, Margie.
Training expenses for the elite gymnasts, the tip-ranked competitors who train five and six hours a day, can run as high as $500 to $1,000 a month, Weiss said. It is a burden that many of the private gymnastics clubs, where virtually all of the competitive gymnasts in America train, will find increasingly unbearable.
"The structure of the local clubs has got to change dramatically in the next few years because of the expenses involved. A lot of pretty good clubs are going to go under because they can't meet expenses."
Inevitably, said Weiss, rising costs will mean fewer gymnasts competing at the elementary level, which, in turn, will mean a smaller pool for the top level to draw from.
It is a matter of some irony that as trouble looms on the gymnastics horizon, the performance level in the United States has never been higher.
Weiss will be traveling to Europe this summer with one of his top gymnasts, Shari Mann, to compete in international meets, while Gary Anderson, head coach at Marva-Teens gymnastics, is going to Japan to compete in an international junior meet with one of his leading gymnasts, Lisa McVay.
Both coaches say the complexity and danger of routines now being done at the highest level of competition has increased substantially since the 1976 Olympics, necessitating longer and more vigorous training -- and driving up costs even further.
"We are going to see more coaches, more teams and more individual gymnasts going abroad and learning from international competitions with the Russians, the Romanians and the East Germans," said Anderson. "The sport of gymnastics has gained a great deal of status, to the point where it is looked on equally with ballet."
Showing no signs of leveling off in popularity is bicycling, both recreational and competitive, which has enjoyed a dramatic increase in interest in recent years in this country. In the Washington area, bicycle clubs offer a regular schedule of races and tours, and several bicyclists from the Washington area toured Europe and China by bicycle within the last year.
Bowling, which counts 40,000 women and 53,000 men involved in organized leagues at least once a week in the Washington area, has been growing over the last several years at a rate of about 1,500 participants a year. Most bowlers expect that growth to continue. "It's a very inexpensive form of sports participation," said Dee Carl, executive secretary of the Washington, D.C., Area Women's Bowling Association. "It's about the same price as going to a movie, and, of course, you're getting some exercise and some recreation."