Olympics Day 8 - Athletics
Michael Steele  /  Getty Images
Tyson Gay of the United States looks up to the scoreboard after failing to make the final, finishing fifth in the men's 100-meter semifinal in Beijing.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/17/2008 1:11:56 PM ET 2008-08-17T17:11:56
OPINION

Track and field got off to a bad start for Team USA. The shot put team of Reese Hoffa, Adam Nelson and Christian Cantwell was supposed to sweep the medals, but all they managed was Cantwell’s silver.

No one’s more disappointed in the result than the athletes. They’ve already spent a full day admitting that they didn’t come through when it mattered, which takes the fun off kicking them when they’re down.

There will undoubtedly be other results during the coming week that will be seen as disappointing by those who expect the United States to dominate on the track. They’ll collect their share of medals. They always do. But they’ll still get beaten up for the ones that get away.

Kicking around the U.S. Track and Field Team has been increasingly popular in recent years as some of its biggest stars, including Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin, have been busted as drug cheats and the team has lost some of its historic dominance. Led by 100-meter champion and world-record holder Usain Bolt, tiny Jamaica has become the new home of the fastest people on earth, a distinction once claimed by the United States as its birthright.

The Americans also dominated the long jump and usually had strong contenders in the triple jump, but this year the country doesn’t have a medal contender in either event. The days when Americans used to produce great milers — the equivalent of the Olympic 1,500 meters — are long gone, as evidenced by the U.S. team's inability to qualify any of its three runners (all immigrants who become naturalized citizens, by the way) for the final in Beijing.

But that doesn’t mean the athletes here are slacking off or not trying. Far from it. What’s surprising isn’t that America doesn’t dominate as it used to, but that it still is such a force on the track at all.

It is also beyond reason why they’re expected to be.

It’s probably a hangover from when the United States was one of a handful of nations that really tried to produce great track athletes. Once you establish superiority in something, your fans get ticked when others catch up to you and start to pass you. The U.S. Olympic Basketball Team knows well how that works.

Slideshow: Day 9's emotional moments But when the United States was the unquestioned track and field power, excelling even in distances events, it was one of America’s glamour sports. Those were the days when one of the marquee moments in the winter sports schedule in New York was the Millrose Games, the premier indoor track meet in America. Writers came from every major newspaper in the country to cover the meet. Madison Square Garden sold out and rocked with cheers.

In the summer, there were other major meets, including the famous Penn Relays, another event that drew national press coverage.

Today, even the New York media barely bothers with the Millrose Games, which haven’t played to anything near a full house in years, and the results from the Penn Relays come to you in agate type on the scoreboard page — if you get them at all.

Go back a couple of generations, and every schoolboy knew the best pole vaulter and high jumper and miler in the United States, and every citizen knew the 100-yard champ. (That was before meters became the American track standard.) Decathlon champions were national heroes, and anyone who’s gotten past 55 years of age remembers Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner. But try to find one person in the checkout line at your local 7-Eleven who knows that the current record-holder in the event is Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic.

Blame the explosion of popularity in baseball, football and basketball for some of the decline. Great athletes go where the money and the fame are, and it’s not in track and field — not in America, anyway. A baseball player can make more in a year playing team sports than all but the very greatest in the world track will make in their careers. Other than the Olympics, there's no television exposure for track and field in the United States.

Universities are also losing interest. Scholarships are way down, especially for males, and colleges looking for a cheap way to meet Title IX requirements are dumping men’s track and wrestling to improve their ratios of male to female athletes. They could do it by creating more women’s sports, but it saves money to eliminate male sports, and they start with the ones people are least interested.

It’s sad that track and field is one of those sports. The ancient Olympics began with a single event, a race of approximately 200 meters called the stade. One presumes that many heats were involved. Otherwise, it would hardly have been worth the trip to watch it. From the name of the race comes the word stadium.

It’s the purest of events, a simple footrace from here to there. The winner got a laurel crown and a lot of free dinners and drinks back home. As the ancient Games grew, winners got more prizes and never had to work another day in their lives — pretty much like today.

Everything else in track and field follows the same template. It’s all about muscle and speed and finding out who’s the best at throwing objects, leaping and vaulting and hurdling over barriers and running various distances. Even if you’ve never seen one of the events before, you’d need no one to explain the action or the scoring. It’s self-evident.

Americans will continue to be among the best in the world at least in the sprints — Tyson Gay may not have made the 100 final, but two other Americans did. But the days of dominance are past; the rest of the world has caught up.

So be disappointed when your guys don’t end up with the shiniest medals, but don’t beat the team up. Think of how much support and interest you’ve shown in the sport in non-Olympic years and ask yourself: Do you deserve any better?

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