Another One Bites the Dust

It wasn’t the type of news any track fan, especially those in the Tri-State area, wanted to hear the first week of March of an Olympic year. But there it was, in a brief press release from Global Athletics & Marketing: After more than a decade showcasing world class track and field in the Big Apple, the adidas Grand Prix would not be coming back to Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island this summer.

Over the past 11 years, the meet, one of two IAAF Diamond League events in the U.S. along the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, had produced 20 national records, two world marks, and nine of the fastest performances ever recorded on American soil. Perhaps the most memorable of these was Usain Bolt’s 9.72 in 2008, when the meet was delayed almost two hours by a summer thunderstorm that sent fans scurrying beneath the stands and lit up the New York skyline with a thunderous electrical storm. When the lightning finally passed, it was the Bolt on the track who shocked those present, including a large contingent of expats from his native Jamaica, with a scintillating WR.

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Take a Step (or 9) Back for Sir Roger

The annual Cinco de Mayo parties and marketing campaigns may be winding down, but the following day offers another reason to celebrate, especially if you’re a runner, and even more so this year.

roger_bannisterThis May 6 marks the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister’s historic run on the Iffley Road track in England, where he became the first man to dip under the “unbreakable” four-minute barrier for four laps of the cinder oval.

In the intervening six decades, running under four minutes has gone from being considered an unobtainable, superhuman feat to the mark of a really, really good miler (in fact college runners achieve the feat somewhat often, the latest occurrence coming at the Penn Relays last month).

Sub-four minute miles might be even more commonplace if the distance was contested more often, but sadly, that’s not the case.

Since Bannister turned the trick on that stormy English afternoon 60 years ago, the hallowed distance of the mile has been supplanted by its metric equivalent, the 1500 meters, a race which lacks the mile’s symmetry of four equal circuits of the oval, each to be covered in an average of 60 seconds.

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Wanted: A Sense of History

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The New Balance Track and Field Center at The Armory, in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

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. Continue reading

This Ill Wind Blew a World Record Good

As yet another winter storm races across the country, canceling thousands of flights and sending panicked shopper out to strip the supermarket shelves bare of bread and milk, I thought back some three decades ago when a similarly stormy winter proved that, at least in the world of track and field, it was indeed an ill wind that blew nobody good.

Eamonn_Coghlan_iPhone4_WallpaperThe occasion was the Vitalis Olympic Invitational, held on the penultimate day of February 1983 at the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. As any historian of the sport can tell you, that was the day the incomparable Eamonn Coghlan, the aptly named Chairman of the Boards, set the world indoor record for the mile, clocking 3:49.78 to become the first man to dip below the 3:50 barrier indoors. But if it hadn’t been for a snowstorm earlier that winter, Coghlan might not have achieved that historic feat, at least not on that day. Continue reading

But cry and you cry alone

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Jenny Simpson speaks to the media after her race in Boston Saturday

Whatever your line of work, you’ll do better, and feel better about what you do, if you can bring a sense of humor to your job.
That might be particularly true for elite athletes, whose very profession is fraught with not just the possibility, but the virtual guarantee of some degree of failure, at some point. No matter how dominant or “in the groove” they might be, a bad bounce of the ball or a slip or trip can bring disaster in the blink of an eye (witness Peyton Manning in the recent Super Bowl to see how fast a near-perfect season can be undone in the space of four quarters of football).
As fans, we have a car crash mentality when it comes to athletic success and failure. While we like to see athletes, especially our favorites, win, it’s their losses, whether in a Super Bowl or an Olympic final, and how they handle falling short in what for some might be the literal chance of a lifetime that define them in our memories long after they’ve retired from their sport. The history of sports is replete with those who have blamed others for their own failures, and needless to say they are seldom accorded a space in our personal pantheon of sporting heroes. But those who accept responsibility for coming up short in the big moment, and even better, can laugh about it, become admired as much for their outlook and attitude as for any medals or championships they may have won when fate smiled on them in a kinder moment. Continue reading

E Pluribus Track

Each year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, the varied tribes that make up the sport of running in this country convene for the yearly rite known as the USA Track & Field Annual Meeting, most recently in USATF’s home city of Indianapolis.
ImageIn some ways, these gatherings resemble, at least from an athletic standpoint, the Mos Eisley cantina from the first Star Wars movie, with “creatures” from every corner of the track and field universe – race walkers, trail and ultra runners, officials, track and field athletes, course measurement geeks (that would be me) – all coming together to ostensibly improve the state of the sport and decide on its governance and direction for the future. Attend one or two of these, and you might come away amazed not that track and field’s governing functions so poorly, but that it functions at all. Continue reading

Running Brave, 49 Years On

Most commemorations of historical events wait for multiples of five or more to hold any sort of significant celebration, but there’s at least one that deserves recognition even though it’s just one year shy of the half-century mark.

Billy Mills wins the 1964 Olympic 10,000m

Billy Mills wins the 1964 Olympic 10,000m

In fact, it could well be argued that Billy Mills’ stunning victory in the Olympic 10,000 meter run in Tokyo on the ides of October, 1964, is worth celebrating on each of its anniversaries, and indeed, every one of the 364 days in between.

For those whose grasp of track and field history is a bit foggy, Mills was the Native American and U.S. Marine who shocked the world by outsprinting world record holder Ron Clarke of Australia, the pre-race favorite, and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi down the final straightaway to grab the gold medal in an Olympic record 28:24.4, a PR by almost 50 seconds. It remains the only Olympic gold won by an American in the event and was the only medal of any color until Galen Rupp won silver in London in the race last year. Continue reading