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.

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