Living and Dying in Olympic Time

by Casey Barrett

Track & Field used to be the premier sport of the Games. Now that honor belongs to swimming. Here’s why…

Back then, that was the Olympics. The track and the field. Faster, higher, stronger? That didn’t refer to the pool or the parallel bars. That meant running faster, jumping higher, and throwing something heavy really far. The ancient Olympians (B.C. Greece version and turn of the century redux) defined the Games on land, in a stadium, with runners – mainly runners, but also jumpers and throwers.

Swimmers were a side show. Back in 1896, they were a demented death-wish curiosity more than anything else. The three swimming events (the men’s 100, 500, and 1200 meters) were held in 55 degree high seas open water. The first Olympic swimming champion, Hungary’s Alfred Hajos, was quoted as saying post-gold: “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”

Phelpsian this was not. 40,000 Greeks reportedly watched from shore, but these were likely more of the car accident gawker variety than sports fans. Man still had a long ways to go when it came to conquering the water – and don’t even ask about the women, they wouldn’t be admitted to join the Games for another sixteen years, in 1912.

Enough history lesson. Fast forward a century and a decade. Those exploits on the track and the field? Nowadays their own athletes refer to their sport as “dying.” Meanwhile, in the pool, the all-powerful TV network has appointed swimming the new face of the Olympics.

How did this happen? A bit like Hemingway described going broke: Slowly, and then all at once.

Over the last two decades, track & field has dug its own grave, due to a lack of Stars and Strategy, and too much Steroids. You could say they have an ‘S’ problem. In America, the management of track & field has long been a joke and the assumption of mass cheating is second only to cycling. These things tend to erode interest – especially in a sport that comes around only once every four years for the great majority of sports fans. That’s the slowly part.

As for the all at once, you can credit that part to Michael Phelps. Yesterday on, columnist Greg Couch laid the blame solely at Phelps’s size 14 feet. He called Phelps the final nail in the coffin of track & field. He cites the Beijing schedule in 2008 as the only true evidence you need. Want to know why the general American public went so Phelps crazy back in 2008? Sure, it was because of his epic ride to eight gold medals – but more specifically, it was because you watched that ride live. Because the swimming finals were in the morning, China time. Because NBC’s Dick Ebersol rigged it that way, after getting approval from the MP meal ticket.

As for track & field? NBC shrugged, feel free to watch it on tape. Yes, in Beijing Usain Bolt dropped jaws every bit as much as Phelps, but in terms of pure media darling-ness? Bolt was an also-ran.

As for the American track stars… Wait, who? Really, name one. You had to think, didn’t you? And chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you care about the Olympics a hell of a lot more than your average American sports fan. In case you’re still thinking, Alyson Felix is a track star you might have heard of… She’s got a chance to win the 200 meters in London. She has two individual Olympic silver medals to her name. Two silvers is plenty special and all, but that’s the first name we throw out there? A sprinter with zero individual gold?

Or if you’re on the God Squad, you may have heard of distance star Ryan Hall. The guy has run the fastest marathon in American history, and his only coach is the Big Man Upstairs. The New York Times devoted a huge feature on Hall this past Sunday. It’s a fascinating story (in a totally demented way), yet the guy’s best, and only, Olympic finish is a 10th place in Beijing.

Compelling faith-based story though he is, this should tell you all you need to know about the state of track & field in the U.S. Their A-list front page story is a runner with a minor shot at an Olympic medal. But hey, at least with all that devout faith, we can assume he’s one American runner who’s clean. (Unlike the fastest American sprinter and would-be rival of Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin… You might recall Gatlin won the 100 meters at the 2004 Games in Athens; or maybe you don’t, since two years later he tested positive and served a four-year ban…)

Contrast that to swimming. To more than just Phelps. Have whatever opinion you may about USA Swimming as a guiding entity, but you can’t deny that this is an organization with a clear-eyed expectation-of-greatness strategy. The results end the arguments. Swimming – guided by Phelps, buoyed by Lochte, bolstered by countless athletes more decorated than Alyson Felix – has ridden a rising tide that has all but swallowed up the ever-diminishing sport of track & field.

This is lovely news for us water-dwellers, but now’s not the time to go Stanford smug. High tides roll back. The days of swimming being aired on tape – weeks after the fact on the ‘Ocho – are not so long ago. They could come again.

Many will say this is a Phelps phenomena, and maybe they’re right. We wouldn’t be on top of the Olympic media podium without him. But it’s so much more than that…

Isn’t it?