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Track and field in the US glows and dims on the four-year Olympic cycle. On off years, you are lucky to find one meet per month on television. This year hasn't been much different, but the recent exception was coverage of the Olympic trials out of Eugene, Oregon. Although the time-zone difference placed most of the best live coverage outside of prime time, what was shown spanned many of the eight competition days and was of higher quality than usual.
The US treats track and field differently than many countries. On the other side of the pond, particularly Europe and Africa, athletics (as its called by the rest of the world) is a primary sport. Countries such as Germany and Great Britain have athletics as part of their regular programming. It is as easy to find meets on the telly there as Saturday college football back here in the US.
Perhaps that is why Europeans are so much better at producing quality television coverage. It's a lament I've vocalized many times. While in Luxembourg I channel surfed and hit on a BBC broadcast of a regional meet. The announcers assumed an informed audience, so they didn't try to re-educate you. They bounced from event to event with very little down time. It was a feast for track fans. Here the coverage spends more time hyping the races than showing them. And they rarely show an entire distance race. After the first few laps of a 5K they will cut away and “maybe” get back for the finish. Meanwhile you've missed the surges, athletes getting dropped and the whole flavor of what makes distance racing a chess match.
I came back from the track trials at Eugene a day early, so I was in North Attleboro to watch the final day of coverage. It was much better than what I've seen in the past. All the key events were shown and in their entirety. The “up close and personals” were fewer and shorter, leaving more time for action – which after all is why we tuned in. I hope this is a sign that better broadcasts are on the way.
So, why the ebb and flow of track popularity? Is it the typical egg-chicken question? Does the lack of TV coverage limit popularity or do the popularity numbers limit sponsorship dollars that in turn makes it economically unfeasible for networks to add track meets to programming? The truth is that many more factors are at play here. Maybe another time I'll investigate why NASCAR and poker and even soccer (the other football) can find weekly spots, but track and field cannot.
Here's my short take relative to why the Olympics generate the interest (both fan and network) that is missing at other times. In a nutshell, athletics is unwieldy for television time slots and does not present the team format that Americans buy into.
A track meet is either an all day or multi-day event. It is impossible to stage live and keep within the attention span of viewers or sponsorship constraints of networks. To match the medium, the sport either must condense or find a way to mix live and taped action in a compelling and seamless fashion.
Even at that, the general public doesn't have the background to appreciate the nuances of competition for competition sake. They are programmed to rooting for teams and eventually identifying individuals within the teams. Their allegiance to the team lives on as the individuals change. Track doesn't provide this at the professional level – except every four years. And this is the fascination; the positive bump that is seen every four years.
The US Olympic track and field team is our team. We understand that. It is us against them – the US against the world. We root along country lines. It is battles of nationalism disguised as sport. So important is this to out collective psyche that television programming conforms to the sport. The coverage is spread to match the competition, within reasonable parameters. Here it is, once every four years, the chance for track and field to escape the anonymity of a second-tier sport and take central position on the world stage.
The irony is that the Olympics is about breaking down borders and bringing countries together. It is a positive cultural shift where stereotypes are set aside. As we compete side by side with both allies and traditional enemies, we learn that the people within those countries are not so different from us. Are we wrong then to high-five at the efforts of a countryman, keep our eyes on the medal count and feel our chests swell as the national anthem celebrates the crowning of an American champion?
No, we are human. It is our nature to want to win.