United States: Stars and gripes

The status of track and field in the US has never been lower as the country's young talents gravitate to the money and fame of major sports

Yannis Nikolaou opens his laptop and clicks on to YouTube. "We know where we should focus and we are trying to do this, but it is not easy," he says. "Here is a good example. There is a young sprinter in the US right now called Tyreek Hill. He is 18 years old and he has just run 20.14sec for 200m and 10.19sec for 100m, but like many talented athletes around that age in the US he has come to the critical moment where he must choose between track and field and American football.

"Here he is playing football for Coffee High School. You see him there, running fast. We are afraid that he will choose American football because of the money, and if he does that the United States may lose their Usain Bolt."

And boy could track and field in the United States do with a Usain Bolt emerging from the ranks. Nikolaou, communications manager of the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body of track and field, is sitting in a Rome hotel discussing the state of the principal Olympic sport in the United States.

At a Team USA "media summit" in Dallas three weeks ago Lashinda Demus, the women's 400m hurdles world champion, fielded a question about the lack of track and field heroes in the States, and the lack of public profile compared to the home Olympic years of 1984 and 1996, when Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson were in their golden pomp. "When we get on the track we know we are taking part in a dying sport," Demus said. "People are making $15,000 [£9,800 per year] and calling themselves a professional athlete. To me, that's not a good job. We don't have anyone pulling in viewers on television. Our races aren't on TV like in other professional sports."

Her comments caused quite a stir. "I was there at the media summit," says Weldon Johnson, co-founder ofLetsrun.com, the US-based website. "When she said it, I was like: 'Whoa, I can't believe she said that but, yeah, it's true'. No one ever says it, though. People in the sport are kind of in denial about the status of track and field. In the US, the average sports fan doesn't even know it exists outside of the Olympics every four years.

"We've got the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene [today], and the adidas Grand Prix in New York is getting bigger and bigger. Those two meets are on network television but, other than that, if you want to watch track on television here it's hard to do.

"The sport's way off the radar. I don't want to say it's dying or dead here, but I think it's been in the same place for a long time and the question is: how do you get it bigger? Things aren't going to change overnight."

Track and field has long been regarded as a third-tier sport in the US – way below the holy trinity of American football, baseball and basketball, and some way down on golf, tennis, ice hockey and Nascar racing. The leading American lights of the sport have always enjoyed greater recognition in Europe than they have in their own country.

Sanya Richards-Ross is probably better known for being married to the NFL star Aaron Ross than for being the world 400m champion. "I think one major reason why the interest isn't there is the fact that we haven't had a major championship in the United States since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996," she says. "But I think it's always been this way. Even in the era of Michael Johnson and those great guys, I'm sure they were more recognised in Europe than in the United States."

The IAAF is acutely aware of the lingering problem, which is not unique to the US; it is a similar story in Russia, the next most successful track-and-field nation. The Prefontaine Classic, which takes place in Eugene today, featuring Richards-Ross and Mo Farah, has been included on the IAAF Diamond League circuit for the past three seasons. So has the adidas Grand Prix in New York, the 2012 edition of which is held a week today. "It's not a dying sport," Nikolaou maintains. "The statistics prove that. Since 2008 the US is becoming stronger and stronger, winning more medals, more golds and more placing points at the Beijing Olympics and the World Championships in 2009 and 2011. So it's crystal clear the US is going higher and higher. It's dominating the sport.

"The second thing is that at all of the major athletics events the daily average attendances have gone up and up. So spectators are showing that our sport is not dying. It is totally the opposite. With the numbers, everything is going up in athletics.

"The only thing that probably makes athletes like Lashinda feel frustration is that, yes, our sport is not in the top six, top seven sports in the United States. But this was always the case. It's not something new.

"The problem is we have never had a World Championships in the United States – never. And the last time that the US hosted an Olympic Games was in 1996 in Atlanta, so for the past 16 years there has been no major track-and-field athletics there.

"In 2012 we managed to convince the two most important meetings in the United States, in Eugene and New York, to be part of the Diamond League circuit, and this has shown – again according to the data – that it sells. But they are only one-day meetings, with mainly US athletes, so it is only a small step forward.

"Everyone wants to find a solution and one day host the World Championships in America, but the problem for us and for the US federation is that they do not have a venue.

"Lamine Diack, the IAAF president, has been having discussions with USA Track and Field for the past three years but we need a venue with a capacity of more than 40,000 and they don't have one. If we cannot find a suitable modern venue it will continue to be a big problem."

Indeed, it will – even more so if the young Tyreek Hills keep gravitating towards American football from track and field, leaving the world's strongest athletics nation without a star turn of Lightning Bolt potential.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Infrastructure Lead, (Trading, VCE, Converged, Hyper V)

£600 - £900 per day: Harrington Starr: Infrastructure Lead, (Trading infrastru...

Software Solution Technician - Peterborough - up to £21,000

£20000 - £21000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Solutio...

Supply teachers needed- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Supply teachers needed for va...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed Rand...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering