From The Editor — March 2009: I’m biased on the subject, but I like the Olympic Trials just as they are

IF I COULD GO TO ONLY ONE MEET every four years, it would be that glorious 10 days that serves as our Olympic Trials. And I’d rather go to Eugene than any other site I can think of. I bring this up so long after the fact because despite what I thought was the best OT ever last year, there are still detractors. Like letter-writer Jim Beatty in this issue (see p. 49). And when the first man ever to run an indoor sub-4:00 mile—and who actually ran in three OTs—speaks, I tend to listen. But as noted in my lead sentence, I’m not a dispassionate observer here.

Beatty certainly isn’t a voice in the wilderness with his complaints. We had a lively debate on the subject on our on-line forum last summer, with his objections being shared by not just a few.

Beatty (and others) wants to see the Trials go to a city that’s easier to get to, can accommodate more visitors and has greater seating capacity. I can’t argue that for some people Eugene isn’t the easiest place to visit, but as to more visitors and seating capacity I would point to Atlanta and Los Angeles, a pair of piece-of-cake major cities. And each hosted an OT in a huge stadium. Atlanta averaged 18,940 spectators per day, LA 17,978. Little old Eugene’s average was 20,890.

Eugene also had a jam-packed howler of a crowd. In the cases of both Atlanta and LA (particularly the latter) people rattled around like marbles in a tin can. Any “Olympic” atmosphere was virtually nonexistent. Yes, at the top end, each of the big cities had a bigger crowd than Eugene could seat, but it also means they had days with minuscule attendance (Atlanta with a low of 12,319, LA a feeble 5800). Imagine being an athlete getting that little support.

There are legitimate arguments, though, that 8 days of competition is just too much, and an impossible sell just about anywhere but track-crazed Eugene. Beatty wants a “compact 2-day event on prime-time TV.” As my direct response to that letter notes, the meet has become too big a cash cow to shrink back to the old ways. I just don’t see it happening. USATF makes too much money off the meet, and to generate that kind of revenue requires a many-day extravaganza, not just a single weekend.

Unfortunately, dreams of prime-time TV remain just that, dreams. TV makes the call on timing, not USATF and in the modern sports landscape there just isn’t any interest in putting our little show into the prized hours of the day.

Worse, even if they did give us night-time coverage, the window would almost certainly stay the same size as now. So the end result of a 2-day meet would be to slash by 50% the amount of network coverage we currently get and completely eliminate the hour or so of cable that has been offered on the other nights. Beatty wants the sport to “regain our once lofty status,” but emaciating the TV coverage would be a step in the wrong direction.

The other crucial thing that would be lost with a 2-day meet is overall exposure, which the sport sorely needs. With the OT now being about the only domestic track meet that the national media cares about, if we can keep them talking about our sport for more than a week, compared to just a single weekend, then we’ve achieved a major media coup. I say leave the Trials as is.