USA Track trying to maintain visibility

Goal: Keep presence after Sydney Games

U.S. Olympic Trials

July 21, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Yesterday, USA Track and Field unveiled the uniforms its teams will wear in Sydney, Australia. They include a new logo for the national governing body, one adorned with wings, which begs the question: Will the sport still fly after the Olympics are done in October?

USA Track and Field is floating on a current of positive developments at its Olympic trials. It has enjoyed record crowds, a bright new star in Marion Jones, a proven one in Michael Johnson and a grudge match to savor, as his 200 against Maurice Greene that will conclude the meet here Sunday has both men talking smack worthy of a World Wrestling Federation production.

Part of track and field's four-year cycle, however, is that it has a habit of disappearing from the national radar once the Olympic rings are put away. In a sport that embraces its tradition, that's one that the CEO of USA Track and Field would like to expel.

Craig Masback has been a world-class miler and a television executive, and he ponders a chicken-or-egg question. There will be more major meets and TV visibility in the United States once prize money is pumped into the sport, which won't happen until there are more major meets ...

In his state of USA Track and Field yesterday, Masback proudly trumpeted the fact that sponsorships to the national governing body have quadrupled to $8 million since he took over leadership of the organization in 1997.

A single member of a major college conference, like Maryland, made half that this year on the television deals alone for its football and men's basketball programs.

Masback has pushed indoor and outdoor tours in the United States. He said that the organization has "put more than $4 million in the pockets of our athletes in connection with the Golden Spike Tour," which made three stops in North Carolina, Oregon and California.

That's what beleaguered reliever Mike Timlin will make for the Orioles this year.

One of the reasons American track and field has struggled to find its place in the mainstream is that it has transformed the simple - running, jumping and throwing - into the complex.

There are 24 men's events alone on the Olympic program, and even collegiate and high school meets are spread over several days. Lengthy schedules challenge decreasing attention spans and turn off television programmers, and USA Track and Field has sought to streamline invitational meets.

While a 400 intermediate hurdler like Baltimore's Torrance Zellner was incensed when his event wasn't included on the Golden Spike Tour this year, such exclusionary decisions are deemed necessary by the sport's most established star.

"There needs to be some major changes in this sport," Johnson said. "You have to go back and revamp the meets so that they're more television-friendly."

On Saturday and Sunday, viewers said they wanted speed, as NBC's coverage of the U.S. trials on those two days were the top-rated sports programs for the entire weekend. When world-record holders Johnson and Greene butt heads Sunday, the British Open will have been put to bed, and ratings are expected to spike further.

David Duval doesn't have any wins on the PGA Tour this year, but he still got to play St. Andrews. Dan O'Brien won decathlon gold in Atlanta four years ago, but he won't defend in Sydney, because of the rigorous standards of USA Track and Field. If you don't do it at the trials - finish in the top three - you can't do it at the Games.

O'Brien, who stayed home in 1992 after he no-heighted in the pole vault at the trials, withdrew this year with a foot injury he sustained last week. Other nations give their best athletes passes into the Olympics, so is this any way for USA Track and Field to market its stars - and itself?

"That issue won't go away," Masback said. "There could always be a move toward a change as the world becomes more competitive, and if our medal total declines."

Another that hangs over the sport is the issue of banned substances. Masback said that USA Track and Field has done a poor job of informing the public of its policies, which are more stringent than major-league sports. "We test more people for more substances in more years than any other pro sport," he said. "We've busted more people, and we've paid the price for it. It's a question of knowing where you should be."

Masback remembers a series of intense meets that the U.S. had with the former Soviet Union. When America won the Cold War, it lost an athletic rivalry.

Keen competition alone might not be enough to sell the sport in a culture that prizes shock value. The ongoing story at the trials has been the trash-talking from Johnson, the world-record holder in the 200 and 400, and Greene, the World's Fastest Human.

"The athletes, in their wisdom, have chosen to say unflattering things about each other," Masback said. "The history of sport is that the public has an interest in real rivalries. That's nothing but good for the sport."

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