There are only a handful of meets in the country that can match the Relays in the number of events and attendance. And each year, those meets grow fewer in number. Athletes are increasingly forced to hop on a plane to Europe to compete in the track circuit overseas. The American athletes often find their greatest fans in the packed crowds at the European meets, while for the most part, America turns a blind eye toward track. For many athletes, the Relays represent the one chance to run in front of a large crowd in the U.S. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The 1996 Olympics was looked upon as a sort of track revival with Michael Johnson as its gold-shoed messiah, saving the sport and taking it to levels unmatched in recent years. The home country would witness one of the greatest track and field exhibitions ever, and the momentum generated would carry over in the following years. Everything seemed to go perfectly. Athletes such as Devers, Carl Lewis and Dan O'Brien all won gold medals. The concerted effort for Johnson to win the 200- and 400-meter sprints worked out better than imagined, as he cruised to a world record in the 200 meters. A media star and track savior had supposedly been born, but eight months later Johnson's face is not seen covering billboards. He is only visible in a Nike ad where he undergoes counselling for being too fast. Most Americans still assume the top runners return to normal 9-to-5 jobs in the years between the Olympics, and the meets this year have not witnessed the expected resurgence of track and field. The reason for the non-revival lies in the nature of the sport itself. The beauty of track and field is that it reduces running, jumping and throwing to some of its most basic levels. While this sets the sport apart, it also contributes to its lack of attention. The average person can better comprehend the greatness of a high-scoring basketball player than a high-schooler jumping seven feet, four inches in the high jump, as Canada's Mark Boswell did at the Relays Friday. It is hard to understand the difficulty, technical precision and determination involved with pushing one's self to run full speed for 400 meters. Most of these subtleties are missed by the first-time track viewer. The Penn Relays stand out in sharp contrast to the second-class state of track and field in the U.S. This year, over 87,000 fans packed Franklin Field over the course of three days, including 46,216 on Saturday. Somehow, the Relays set attendance records while the interest in track and field has failed to rise after the Olympics. The answer can be found in one thing Tim Baker, the former director of the Relays, always stressed. The true magic of the meet lies in the high school and college athletes whose only chance to run in front of 46,000 people will come at the Relays. The stands are filled with friends, family and fellow athletes who are there to watch specific high schoolers and collegiates compete. While this leads to higher crowd sizes, it also creates a stadium filled with knowledgeable fans who truly appreciate track and field. In fact, the Penn Relays is able to thrive because its does not showcase the world's best athletes, but rather the unknowns. The Relays are still largely unnoticed by students at Penn, who in many ways do not take advantage of the excitement offered by an event a few blocks away. Yet the Relays will continue to survive without the student support as long as the track enthusiasts still travel to Franklin Field to participate in the Penn Relays experience. One can only hope this weekends first time viewers become the fans who help revive interest in track and field in the future.Comments powered by Disqus
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