They'll run and jump in Stuttgart, but in U.S., who cares?

August 13, 1993|By Gil Lebreton | Gil Lebreton,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The greatest track and field meet in the world begins today, and I dare you to find it.

"This is the one," Carl Lewis, holder of nine Olympic medals, was saying the other day. "This is the party."

As in all good parties, you need only check the guest list of the fourth World Track and Field Championships Lewis, Sergei Bubka, Baylor's Michael Johnson,Heike Drechsler and dozens of assorted Ivans and Tatianas.

But so goes the allure of the Worlds. No athlete who qualifies dares skip off to Prague to race for a bag of marks and two nights at the Hyatt. In the track and field community, the enchantment of the World Championships is as powerful as the Olympics.

Yet, go ahead. Try to find it.

Oh, the nine-day meet itself is in Stuttgart, Germany. But try to find it on American television.

You'll see two one-hour segments on ABC-TV, shoe-horned between a couple of fishing shows and a basketball game from that California summer pro league. You won't even find the rest of the nine days on ESPN, sandwiched under a stack of Roy Firestone reruns.

NBC-TV, which telecast the last track championships from Tokyo in 1991, declined an encore from Stuttgart. If the network couldn't draw much of a late-night audience two years ago, when it had Lewis' 9.86-second world record and Mike Powell's 29-4 1/2 long jump, it hardly figured to be lavishing rights fees, three summers removed from the next Olympics.

Track and field remains at a befuddling crossroads in this country. Beyond the annual track carnivals, like the Texas and Penn relays, rare is the major meet east of California. When summer comes, our best runners and jumpers pack six weeks worth of peanut butter and underwear and head for Europe.

In the Old World, track and field sprints along with a robust glow. The Olympics just left the neighborhood, leaving behind golden memories. The fall of communism, while uniting the Germanys, has leveled the sport's playing fields. An Irish woman, Sonia O'Sullivan, could win this weekend's 3,000 meters. The 800-meter favorite, Maria Mutola, is from Mozambique.

There apparently was little trouble getting the World Championships on nightly European TV. Even in Canada, home of the banished Ben Johnson, there will be highlight shows from Stuttgart each night.

"Our sport is going down the drain," Lewis said this week from Monaco, or Nice, or wherever it is that 32-year-old millionaire sprinters train these days. "In our country, we're still denying that track and field is on the decline."

Right, and Lewis is one of the reasons for and against it. He has reaped a handsome harvest for his eight Olympic and nine World Championships medals. But when was the last time that you saw Carl Lewis run in person?

No, he runs in Europe. Johnson runs in Europe. They all run in Europe, because Europe has the marks and the big francs. Critics argue that if the American stars would agree to compete domestically for a tad less money, promoters would stage more U.S. meets.

And even then, there is no guarantee that Lewis and Powell, to name two, would square off each weekend in the long jump.

As Christine Brennan put it so well in the Washington Post, "The biggest names spend most of the year ducking each other -- and the rest of their time trying to avoid news conferences."

tTC The amazing grace of the World Championships, however, is that no one evades anyone. This is the one meet where you walk your talk -- or, at least, your Reebok check.

U.S. track organizers will be watching the upcoming nine days in Stuttgart, hoping that in two thin hours in the television spotlight, track and field can rekindle some primal, American spark.

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