August 2005
LAST MONTH I BASHED THE NCAA for making it hard on fans to follow the sport because it allows all kinds of varying uniforms for the same team. This month it’s USATF’s turn to get whacked. The crux of the matter is once again those in charge allowing it to be hard for fans to follow the sport, and the specific is who the athletes are representing when they compete at the USATF Championships.

If we’re to believe the entry lists, a great portion of them appear to represent a mythical University of Nat. That was the line coined by some friend of T&FN many years ago when first seeing “unat” (unattached) in results.

If you look at the start lists of the first event on the track at Carson this year you’ll find the entrants in the men’s decathlon 100. There are 13 names there, and 9 of them are Nats. That’s an extreme example, but not by much. Men’s 110H: 11 out of 29, for example. Now the people who were in the stands in Carson at least got some indication from the announcers, more often than not, of what the provenance of most of the Nats was. But the very fact that they were in the stands means they were people who are already attached to the sport at a pretty high level. I’m a bit worried about losing some of them, few as they are already.

But I really worry about all the people who aren’t in the stands, who aren’t watching the meet on TV, aren’t reading about it in the newspaper. To the track world, they just aren’t, period. Now I don’t want to make too much out of a small thing, but I can’t help but think that we’d do a lot better connecting with the general sports fans if they had a better feel for the athletes.

And I don’t just mean the superstars, who do drive most of the interest in any sport. I mean the spear carriers who fill the bad lanes and don’t advance beyond the first round. If Joe Sixpack picks up his local paper and reads the results from the Nationals (OK, I admit it, his finding the results is a bit of a stretch to begin with) and sees a steady string of “unattached” people, he’s not going to relate to them all that well. But if he knew something more about them—like their school, or where they live—don’t you think there’s a chance they’d tug at his heartstrings a little? “Wow! A guy from my alma mater/hometown ran against Maurice Greene yesterday.”

There’s a good reason so many athletes are unattached, of course. The almost complete collapse of the club system (despite USATF’s ongoing good efforts to resuscitate it) doesn’t leave one with many options. But mainly, in these professional times, everybody’s looking for a score with a sponsor. And if you have something other than a Nat after your name, the thinking goes, you’re not available.

Somehow, I don’t think a hometown would be construed that way. Nor would a collegiate affiliation (many collegians with eligibility enter as unattached). So let me make this plea to USATF:

Yes, I know it’s going to be a bit more work, but how about being proactive with the entries? Where the entry blank asks for affiliation, also have them enter desired city/school to attach them to if they don’t have a club or a sponsor? Then enter them into your computer that way and make sure that’s how they are introduced by the announcers (honest, we wouldn’t mind!) and how they end up on the results.