Not long ago I was in New York City at the New Balance Track and Field Center at The Armory, the epicenter of indoor track and field in the Tri-State area. The occasion was the high school Eastern States Championship, at 80 years the oldest indoor high school meet in the country. It was also to see a longtime friend and colleague, Pete Gambaccini, receive the Stan Saplin award for running journalism, and to have a plaque with his name unveiled on the “wall of fame” in the Armory press room. Pete’s been covering the sport for more than two decades for Runner’s World, and is one of the more fair-minded and erudite observers of the sport there is.
At the small reception that followed, we were talking to a young scribe, less than half our age, who seems destined to follow in Pete’s footsteps someday as a sage observer of the sport. And yet, when in the course of the conversation we mentioned the old Vitalis Olympic Invitational, where Eamonn Coghlan became the first man to break 3:50 for the indoor mile, this young fellow was astounded at the fact that there had been a meet at the Brendan Byrne Arena, just across the Hudson in New Jersey. He also seemed equally shocked to learn that for years, the national championships, under the auspices of the AAU, then TAC, then USATF, had been held at Madison Square Garden. And when we told him that those meets were just part of a vibrant domestic indoor circuit that usually included two or three meets a weekend, running the course of the winter, it was as if we’d said Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were all real, living people.
This is not to denigrate this young man’s lack of knowledge of the history of the sport, but rather to show just how endemic that trait is in the current generation of track fans. If this fellow, who can probably recite the list of top 10 current performers in every event at the drop of a hat, was unaware of the rich history of the sport, even just the limited part in his own backyard, how are we to expect those whose interest is much more casual to appreciate it?
That’s not to say a similar condition doesn’t exist in other sports. Talk radio is full of callers who act as if the history of their own particular interest began when they saw their first game. But it seems that track, which has as rich a past as any of the professional sports, is more prone to such a lack of any kind of appreciation of the past. That’s odd, and sad, since it’s a sport built almost entirely on the empirical collection of numbers – who ran fastest, jumped highest, threw farthest.
But perhaps that’s why there is so little regard for athletes from previous generations. Performances that were regarded as barrier-breaking when achieved half a century ago are now almost reachable by high schoolers. Thus, the best of a previous era are now seen by many as just inferior, and not worth more than the lines in the record books they occupy.
Writers like Pete Gambaccini and Stan Saplin knew that the great athletes of the past established marks that they knew would be broken, and served as beacons to encourage those who followed to strive to do so. It’s time more of today’s fans realize, and more importantly, appreciate, what a rich past our sport possesses, one that must be understood and revered lest the current crop of performers become little more than times and distances in a record book themselves.