Track and field in Maryland is suffering an identity crisis.
"Cross country and track is viewed as a sport for geeks and nerds," said Brad Jaeger, the boys cross country and indoor track coach at Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County.
To try to change that image, Jaeger has organized the Inaugural Towson Track and Field Open, which begins tomorrow at 3 p.m. at Minnegan Stadium on the campus of Towson State. The event is open to amateurs of all ages, although some of the top U.S. athletes will be there, including Bob Whelan of Lexington, Ky., who has broken four minutes in the mile.
"The main reason we are doing this is to promote track and field in the state of Maryland," said Jaeger, 35, who has coached at Chesapeake for two years. "The sport has taken a nose dive in terms of people participating on the collegiate and professional level, but mainly on the high school level.
"I've encouraged high school track and cross country coaches, and I can't get people interested in the sport. I'm trying to build interest by inviting top-notch athletes from the state to the event."
Roger Erricker, track and field coach at Towson State, is helping Jaeger organize the event. Erricker said he has felt the effects of lack of interest about track and field from the Tigers' administration rather than the athletes. On Tuesday, men's and women's indoor track -- along with men's and women's swimming -- were cut from the Tigers' athletic program.
"It's going to be very difficult," said Erricker, citing university-wide budget cuts for the cutback. "In the Northeast and pretty much across the country, programs rely on indoor track because of weather and because the outdoor season is so short. We can't prepare athletes sufficiently without going indoors."
Jaeger blames the lack of interest in track and field on lack of publicity of the sport, despite two weeks of Olympic coverage from Barcelona, Spain. "The Olympics have helped, but it's only a two-week deal," he said. "We're hoping by adding this event at the end of that two weeks that people will want to get involved, either by being a spectator, a participant, or by having their children out there to run."
Although it may help, the Olympics can't carry the burden of resurrecting track and field by itself. John Foreman, the boys track coach at Gilman, is hopeful that the Olympic coverage returned some of the glory to track and field.
"I really feel that with the Olympics a lot of kids may see that the sport is glorified, and we may pick up some kids just from that effort from the national viewing," Foreman said. "In Baltimore, the popularity just isn't there like it is with lacrosse and baseball. Students don't see in track and field the glory or the esteem that other sports have."
People interested in participating in the Towson State track meet can sign up for the event on race day, although spots in a race are not guaranteed.
"The numbers of women who compete in track and field are smaller than men normally," said Erricker, who coached at Howard High School before joining the Tigers' staff. "My women's teams have always been smaller, and it's true in high schools as well. . . . "
Jaeger says that he holds open track workouts for athletes of all ability levels on Tuesdays 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Johns Hopkins.
Facts and figures
What: Inaugural Towson Track and Field Open
When: Tomorrow, 3-10 p.m.
Where: Minnegan Stadium
Who: Amateur athletes from across the country. Age groups are 14-18, 19-26, 27-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-plus.
Registration: $7 for individuals, $12 for relays. Call Brad Jaeger, (410) 882-6103.