From The Editor — April 2010: Does track & field need a touch of the X-Games mentality

THE WINTER OLYMPICS are now history, and like most sports fans, I suspect most of you—despite the hazards of NBC’s “plausibly live” methodology—enjoyed it immensely. I know I did, for the first time in many years. While the traditional biggies of hockey, alpine skiing and figure skating captured most of the headlines, the biggest buzz was certainly reserved, I thought, for the modern additions to the Games.

I’m talking the various snowboarding activities and short-track speedskating. Non-stop X-Games inspired thrills and chills. Watching those events got me to wondering what our sport could do—without getting silly—to appeal to the younger generation of fans.

I’m sorry to report that I couldn’t think of much. Given the popularity of “big air” in the board events (and that goes for the skate version outdoors), I was intrigued at the thought of crafting some tricks events for the vault, much as I’m not a big fan of sports that require judging. With that in mind, how about a bar set at 5 meters (c16½-feet) with various spins and twists like the boarders do? It would certainly put the shorts of traditionalists in a bunch, but I’m guessing it could be an easy sell to the next generation.

Watching the short-track skating also brought me back to one of my pet projects—one mentioned here many times—which is changing the 400 to a 500, with a break to the pole after the first 100 meters, followed by battling in lanes, just like 4×4 runners do. If the skaters can go at it at twice the speed of runners, all the time wearing samurai swords on their feet, what’s the risk of a few minor spike wounds?

You might quickly say that there are only 4 skaters, versus 8 quartermilers, but guess what, that’s another thing that the skaters have right: make it a race among real medal-contenders. Track & field has it wrong top to bottom by putting too many people in finals. The difference in skill level (be it a sprint, jump, or throw) is simply too large when the object is to crown a World or Olympic champion. There are too many no-hopers out there who simply get in the way in a race or eat up valuable time in the field events. (Yes, that’s a very harsh judgment against true world-class athletes, but I’m concerned about keeping our sport ultra-viable on the biggest of stages.)

Actually, I’d have no trouble keeping 8 in the non-lap races, but once it comes to running around in circles, I’d vote for holding the 400 and 800 to 6, and the rest to 8 (meaning the return of heats in the 10K).

And if 8 is good enough for lap races even now, why do we need 12 field eventers? There are two ways to go with the jumps and throws. One would be to have the qualifying round cut to 8, the other would be—another boat I’ve floated many times—to have a far steeper cut-down than we now do. Everybody loves a “bracket” where people continually get whacked off. Take 12 to the final if you want, but 2 are dumped after each of the first four rounds, so that round 2 has 10, round 3 has 8, round 4 has 6 and rounds 5 and 6 have just 4 (the medalists plus one contender are weeded out).

A look at past results will show you that if that had been done at major championships, virtually never would a potential winner/medalist have been eliminated earlier. The rest are just useless window dressing. Track & field still draws its basic rules from the 19th Century. It’s time to skip over 20 and move to 21.