There were moments on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon at the IAAF World Indoor Championships of track and field in Portland, Ore., that make you optimistic about track’s uncertain future in the United States. Races where the intimate crowd packed tightly inside the Oregon Convention Center around a gorgeous 200m track purpose-built for this occasion reached deafening levels. It was one of American track’s finest weekends ever, in fact, having won the most medals ever by any country in these biennial, offseason championships.
Moments like an 800m final that American Boris Berian, a one-time track prodigy dropout who was working at McDonald’s little more than a year ago, led wire to wire. Or the men’s 1500m final, an epic duel in which world-class American Matthew Centrowitz Jr. bested his longtime rival, the New Zealand veteran Nick Willis. Or the women’s high jump, where high schooler Vashti Cunningham, daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, beat a strong field to win a world championship gold medal at age 18.
Or try this example for how good the vibe at this track meet was: The arena unexpectedly exploded in rapture when American Michelle Carter heaved the final, winning throw in the women’s shot put. Seriously. Women’s shot put.
If anything, it proved that indoor track is something that any sports fan would enjoy. The intimate, walled-in venue seems to amplify track and field’s strongest traits. All the drama of racing, and the awe-inspiring spectacle of people jumping high or far, is pressurized, condensed and boiled down inside a building: The races are shorter, the track is smaller, the fans are closer, and the four walls and low ceiling hems in the energy and the noise.
And yet, even on one of America’s finest recent track weekends, it was predictably overshadowed by the NCAA basketball tournament that’s on simultaneously.
Because these were races that make you think that if only American sports fans could see this, maybe they’d come back to the sport en masse. The U.S. won 23 medals, a new championship record—13 of them gold. And not only that, the arena truly felt as frenzied as an NCAA basketball tournament game.
These are not good days for track and field. It’s been completely left behind in the SportsCenter age, unable to elevate stars or storylines into the American sporting consciousness as it once did. The blame lies both with the sport and its lecherous ancillary organizations. Recent bribery scandals at the IAAF, track’s governing body, make FIFA and the IOC look like honorable institutions in comparison. And each subsequent athlete doping scandal reveals that performance-enhancing drugs are far more pervasive than previously assumed, with athletic federations even colluding to play a part in abetting and covering them up. In fact, all Russian athletes were banned from the meet for this reason. Meanwhile, broadcasters can’t seem to portray track and field with any of the polish or production values that fans of football, basketball or baseball take for granted, far below the basic standard for sports coverage in the 21st century.
So let’s just say it: Track has a long road back, and everyone in the sport knows it.
And so Portland’s hosting of this year’s biennial world indoor championships was seen as something of a cautious first step back into American sports fans’ attention span. Stakes were quietly high, in other words, for this thing to be a success.
With this in mind, the track meet’s organizer, Vin Lananna, with IAAF president Sebastian Coe’s blessing, set out to make this unlike any indoor track meet ever seen before: Athletes entered the arena pro-wrestling style, via a tunnel, accompanied by music, swirling spotlights and fog machines. The program was tweaked to play up certain events. And the medal ceremonies became a public spectacle free to anyone, held not in the arena but across the river in Pioneer Square, the main gathering area in Portland’s downtown.
Was it a success? Well, we should probably measure success in this embattled sport in small increments these days, but let’s say there was cause for optimism. American success here bodes well for the summer Olympics later this year. And after reports of slow sales when tickets first went up for grabs last year, in the end, Friday evening, Saturday evening, and Sunday’s programs were each sellouts, with more than 7,000 people encircling a 200m track and screaming loud. Saturday night’s medal ceremony downtown in Pioneer Square reached capacity—people inside had to leave before anyone else outside was let in. These are all good signs for Lananna’s long-range plan to first make the state of Oregon a stronghold for the sport, then grow outward.
“I think this is the start,” Lananna said at a press conference on Sunday. “I don’t think everything can happen all at once. I think what we have created is a valuable show. The entertainment has been really good, and it is like anything else: People come to something and feel like it’s the place to be, then it is easier to transport to other places.”
However, I was reminded of one of track’s biggest weaknesses when I watched recorded TV coverage later in the evening. Obviously, most sports are better in person, but the visceral thrill of racing, jumping and throwing gets somewhat lost in the TV broadcast. All of the tension, the screaming, the whistling and the drama that reverberated around the arena during Berian’s electrifying 800m final on Saturday night was lost on TV. There, the race sounded like a quiet practice session in comparison. And so having TV be one of the sport’s weakest links is dispiriting, particularly after all of the attention paid by Lananna to create a festive, Roman Colosseum-like atmosphere and some wider public awareness.
But in all, being here in person at the IAAF World Indoor Championships offered a bit of hope for the sport as it crawls its way back to respectability: The American track team is loaded with talent—and great storylines just begging for profiles by Bob Costas at the Olympics. And Lananna can be trusted to put on a great spectacle, which is good news because he’s got many more up his sleeve. He’s also starting up what’s known as the Summer Track Series between the Olympic Trials and the Olympics this year, with an innovative team format, track meets in several cities and a broadcast deal with ESPN. He’s also once again putting on the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., will serve as head coach for the U.S. Olympic track and field team this summer, and last year helped win an unbelievable bid for Eugene to host the 2021 outdoor world championships. He’s the right guy to lead any sort of charge, in other words.
Can track ever put its best foot forward? It’ll take far better media treatment, plus a hole in the sports calendar not filled with a cultural phenomenon like March Madness.
But was this a good first step back to relevancy for track and field in the United States? Absolutely. There’s plenty of work to do on the media’s presentation. And if track ever does grow back into a vital American sport, it certainly won’t be overnight. But as Portland’s hosting of these world championships showed, the actual sport is as exciting as ever, particularly indoors. The only thing is that for now, at least, even in our media-saturated age, you’ll just have to see it in person.