Track and field is one of the most popular sports in the world. It was the number one participatory sport for high school students in 2018, and in that same year, more individuals tuned in to live coverage of the Boston Marathon than any streaming of the event in over a decade. With that being said, track and field as a professional sport has largely failed to penetrate the realm of popular sports entertainment in the United States beyond the novelty of the Olympic Games every four years. This presents an interesting enigma of why exactly a sport that so many Americans have a history with in high school or college isn’t keeping America’s attention.
The simple answer is that track on its own can be rather boring. The fast times and the athletic feats are great fun for those that understand the ins and outs of all of the events, but if the average viewer is provided a means to latch onto the stories of the athletes so that they can feel the stakes of each race, then track and field may just stand a chance in America’s sports hierarchy.
Internationally the most charismatic and well-known character in track and field has to be Jamaica’s Usain Bolt; the fastest man ever. Within the United States, though, there hasn’t been a more notorious name associated with the track than Steve Prefontaine. Setting American records at every distance from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, Prefontaine — commonly referred to as “Pre”— left an indelible mark on his sport, so much so that it wouldn’t be a far cry to call him track’s Michael Jordan. It wasn’t just the fast times, there have been plenty of fast athletes since his untimely death in 1975; it was everything about him, his long blonde hair and a chiseled face, his fight against the establishment to allow track athletes to make a living from their sport and his attitude. Pre always raced recklessly and from the front, famously saying at one point, “the best pace is suicide pace and today is a good day to die.”
Pre was a once-in-a-100-years kind of individual, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing people competing professionally today. Track is a sport of emotion and each race is just as much a battle of wills as anything else; the emotion, the individuals, the stories are what make track and field compelling. The NBA has brought itself so much success because of its focus on superstars, every team has a face and thus an attitude and a story all its own. United States Track and Field, or USATF, needs to let go of any pure ideals attached to its amateur years and focus on the stars and their faces and stories that make each race exciting.
Athletes who make the sport what it is should be treated like superstars, but as it stands their avenues for monetary gain are extremely limited. For one, they are not allowed to advertise a sponsor of their bodies or uniforms as they race. I’m not suggesting that track and field should be turned into NASCAR in terms of advertising, but if athletes, who often come out of the sport with little in the way of savings, can make a few thousand dollars for putting a sticker on their uniform, then it is in USATF’s best interest to let that happen.
Track and field deserves better than to be relegated to occasional mid-day NBC broadcasts and expensive streaming services. It should be a sport that reminds the vast number of Americans of what it felt like to be on a track team, the adrenaline, the success, the failure, the cocky attitudes and the bad Prefontaine mustaches. If USATF doesn’t change its entire outlook on the sport and doesn’t start treating athletes with the respect they deserve, then it will simply remain as boring.