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January 25, 2018

What Track & Field Can Learn From RuPaul’s Drag Race

Jesse Squire’s Thursday Morning College Trackstravaganza and Field Frenzy runs every Thursday morning at Citius Mag. You can follow him on Twitter at @tracksuperfan.

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 premieres tonight on VH1 and I am HYPED. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

In case you are not aware, RuPaul’s Drag Race is your basic elimination-style reality competition show, hosted by the 1990s crossover drag queen. Each season crowns “America’s next drag superstar” with a prize of $100,000. Last season’s finale had an audience of nearly 900,000 viewers.

How did I, a straight man and a remarkably boring one at that, become a fan of the show? About seven years ago my old college roommate went to show me something on Netflix and his “recently viewed” panel included Drag Race. This was before pretty much anyone had heard of the show and, given the subject matter, I could not let this pass without explanation. “Wait, wait, wait — what the hell is that?” He said he thought it was the best thing on TV. He showed me an episode and I found it to be a truly bizarre and hilarious window into a world of which I previously had no knowledge whatsoever. I was hooked and now the show is appointment viewing.

The show is a lot of things, but my take is that it is a master class on how to be a celebrity. After all, RuPaul has managed to keep himself famous for a quarter-century, which is no easy thing.

Professional track and field athletes are also celebrities, or at least they are if they want to develop a “brand”. They are running, jumping, and throwing billboards for their sponsors, and the ones who draw the most attention are the ones who have the best relationships with those sponsors — not necessarily the best pay, but the most advantageous situation, and the ones best prepared to find other ways to draw on their 15 minutes of fame once their competitive days are over.

So I have come up with a number of lessons that current and future professional tracksters can learn from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

True success is multidimensional.

When I first started watching the show, I thought the competition was simply about which man could portray the most convincing female. That’s not what Drag Race is about at all, since drag as performance art is about considerably more than that. The show is part Project Runway, part The Voice, part Last Comic Standing, part So You Think You Can Dance, and more. The judges prize a diversity of talent.

Still, playing a convincing (cis) woman does help a contestant. (The drag queen urban dictionary calls this “being fishy”.) RuPaul has been known to say “don’t rest on pretty” if that that’s all a contestant is bringing to the table.

In the world of track and field, assuming that winning is all you need to do in order to make yourself attractive to sponsors is the same as “resting on pretty”. As athletes, winning is the ultimate goal. But individuals whose livelihood depends on sponsorship have to diversify. What happens when an athlete gets injured, hits a dry spell, or is displaced by a new young talent? Sponsors have been known to drop athletes quickly, and people who are interesting are more likely to be able to find other opportunities.

Lolo Jones is Exhibit A in this regard. She still gets sports headlines now, nearly ten years after her biggest moment. She hasn’t won diddly-squat in quite a while but still commands attention. She was an early adopter of Twitter–at first, she was one of very few track athletes who used it–and she displayed a humorous side that otherwise none of us would have known. In early 2011, she also used social media to show her terror and heartbreak at a serious back injury that threatened her career (and if you don’t think back surgery is deadly serious, just as Tiger Woods). She went beyond being merely a warrior on the track and it’s payed off when her physical talents have started to fade.

Another example is Shalane Flanagan. She got a cookbook published when it looked like her competitive days were drawing to a close. No one knew her greatest moment was yet to come when that book hit the market, but it even got free advertising as a Jeopardy question (or is it answer?) after she won the New York City Marathon.

Winning isn’t the only thing that matters. Use what other talents you may have to help yourself stand out from the crowd.

You’re not here to make friends.

That is the classic reality-show line, isn’t it? You put together a dozen or so highly competitive people, lock them in a hotel and TV studio for a month or more, and keep them busy and under pressure all day long and people may start getting a little touchy. Still, it’s remarkable how often many of the contestants do get along–you’d think it would be never, but some fantastic friendships are created.

Professionals in track and field can be and often are very close friends with the very same people they’re doing their darndest to beat when the gun goes off. This is what many of us loved about doing the sport and what we love about those who do it. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Athletes who assert themselves within the business of track and field are not going to get along with everyone in the business. They may make some enemies among sponsors or meet directors. This is the price of giving yourself power. You look no further than Nick Simmonds to know this. He wrote this on Facebook six years ago:

For those of you wondering why I am not racing in tomorrow’s London Diamond League 800m: I was told by the meet director, Ian Stewart, that I am “a liability” and that I am not allowed to race in any of his meetings.

This was after Symmonds started pushing up against restrictive sponsorship limitations at the USATF Convention and used various “guerrilla” marketing tactics to get around what rules he and others couldn’t get changed.

Go ahead and make friends. But don’t let people walk all over you.

Be vulnerable.

The Guardian’s headline from the end of Season 8 read RuPaul’s Drag Race: empathy and naked emotion are the point, not winning. Strong words about a show whose humor is often more crude than either Beavis and Butthead or Clerks.

RuPaul and other judges have been known to tell contestants to show their vulnerability, to break down walls they may have put up between themselves and others. RuPaul specifically called out Willam for this in Season 4.

The entire show is based around people being fake–I mean, what else would you call men dressing up as women–but in another sense it’s about being very real.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is unique. When contestants share their stories, their vulnerability resonates with audiences. In a country where 40 percent of homeless youth identify LGBT and LGBT youth are more inclined to suffer from mental health disorders, this representation matters. It’s important that young people are able to find a support system, and at the very least, the stories told on Drag Race are a reminder that nobody is alone in their experience.

Professional athletes are telling different kinds of stories to a different kind of audience, but the situation is the same. Athletes connect with fans when they let the public see the real person, not just a warrior in a track uniform. One athlete who used to be behind a wall was Tianna Bartoletta. She never talked to the media. Then she opened up and last month she explained all the difficulties she’s experienced, including suicidal thoughts.

This kind of thing is where social media really helps. Even a star like Sandi Morris doesn’t get that much media attention, but she can use Twitter and Instagram to show us how much of a goofball she is.

Sell the merch.

Nearly every winner of a Drag Race weekly challenge wins some kind of sponsored prize–it’s a game show, after all. In addition, some of the challenges are about creating and promoting a fictional product, or promoting a fictional product being sold by someone else. Knowing how to sell something without sounding like an infomercial is a big part having staying power as a celebrity.

Every track pro has a sponsor, but so few thank them. NASCAR drivers never fail to mention their sponsors in postrace interviews. Pro skiers always hold their skis for maximum sponsor exposure in photographs, as do pro golfers with their hats and shirts. Pro runners? You’d barely know they had a sponsor when Lewis Johnson does the usual breathless postrace interview.

I get it. You want to thank God because He made this all possible for you. But remember, He sent you that sponsor too. Can I get an amen?


Handing out the medals for the best in college track…

Gold – Clemson’s track
Clemson unveiled a new banked indoor track last season and it earned a reputation as being a fast one. This weekend’s Bob Pollock Invitational did nothing to damage that reputation.

Christian Coleman broke the 60 meter world record in his first meet of the year. Georgia’s Keturah Orji broke her own indoor American and collegiate triple jump records with 14.53 meters (47’ 8”), which also tied her comprehensive indoor/outdoor collegiate record – again, in her first triple jump competition of the year. Florida’s Grant Holloway went to #3 on the all-time collegiate 60 hurdles list with 7.49. Kentucky’s Sydney McLaughlin ran a blazing 50.96 second leg to give her 4×400 relay a big lead, only to have them run down by an ever blazinger (is that a word?) 50.56 anchor leg by Florida’s Sharrika Barnett. Florida’s men’s and women’s 4x400s ran the #8 and #5 times in collegiate history.

Yeah, it’s fast.

Silver – Fantastic Finishes
Those in their 40s or older can remember John Facenda (aka The Voice of God) and “Alcoa presents … FANTASTIC FINISHES!” during the two-minute warning on Sunday NFL broadcasts in the 1980s. College track had a few of its own on Saturday.

Michigan hosted a quadrangular against Arkansas, Michigan State, and Ohio State on Saturday. The men’s meet was close…


But wait! The results were adjusted…

And if you thought it was over…

In another quadrangular over in College Station, Texas A&M’s men led Texas by just ½ point going into the 4×400. The Aggies beat the Longhorns by nearly two seconds per leg and put the meet away fairly handily. The end of the 3000 may have been the most fantastic finish in that meet:

And in another fantastic finish, the above-mentioned Sharrika Barnett anchoring Florida’s 4×400…

Bronze – 600!
The 600 yards was once the classic odd indoor distance. Shorter than a half-mile, longer than a quarter mile, it was an NCAA Championships event for 19 years and made stars out of in-between runners such as Martin McGrady, Stan Vinson, and Eugene Sanders. The 600 went by the wayside when indoor track morphed from a regional barnstorming diversion into serious, actual competition.

The current (unofficial) world record for the 600 yards is 1:07.53, set by Mark Everett at the 1992 Millrose Games, which broke McGrady’s 1:07.6 from the 1970 AAU Championships. Both of those are remarkable times given how difficult it is to run at that speed on a 160-yard track. McGrady’s record was considered Beamonesque in its time, and Jeff Hollobaugh considers that race one of the greatest of the 20th century.

Two 600 records were set this weekend on our modern 200 meter banked tracks. UTEP’s Michael Saruni ran 1:14.79 for 600 meters to break the world indoor record. That’s notable given that Emmanuel Korir set the then-WR of 1:14.97 on the same track at the same meet a year ago, then went on to run 800 meters as fast as 1:43.10 later in the summer. For what it’s worth, Saruni has another collegiate record of sorts: his 1:45.92 at Vanderbilt two weeks ago is the fastest 800 ever run on an oversized track.

Texas Tech’s Vincent Crisp ran 1:08.16 for 600 yards in a home invitational, winning by just 0.02 seconds over TCU’s Derrick Mokaleng. The old record was 1:08.26 by Arkansas’ Roddie Haley, set in 1987 at the Southwest Conference Championships under far more challenging conditions on Forth Worth’s old 176 yard board track.


The top meets of the upcoming weekend are rated from one to three dip finishes for sheer watchability…

Three dips: Columbia East-West Challenge
Live webcasts via and NBC Sports Gold
This is how indoor track used to be decades ago: invited college teams bringing their “A” athletes and matching them up against a handful of post-collegians. Some of the fast heats will barely have any collegians at all. Villanova’s Siofra Cleirigh Buttner is the lone collegian in her heat of the 800, while the top heat of the men’s 800 is all pros. The sprints are all collegians, though, and one race I’m looking forward to is Oregon’s Ariana Washington against Harvard’s Gabrielle Thomas in the 200.

Two dips: Razorback Invitational
Live coverage on SEC Network+ (Friday at 7pm ET) and SEC Network (Saturday at 2pm ET)
Promotional giveaways are notable in college track and field by their absence, but Arkansas has four of them for this meet. Nice to see someone taking some effort. As with every indoor meet at Fayetteville, the sprints will be the big draw here. The two best men’s 4×400 teams in the nation will be here in Florida and Texas A&M, but unfortunately they’re in separate heats.

One dip: Harvard-Yale-Princeton
The H-Y-P indoor triangular has been going since 1953. Princeton is heavily favored to win the men’s meet and extend their streak to 26 years. The women’s competition is a bit more balanced but Princeton is expected to win their fourth straight.

BAD MOVIE OF THE WEEK: STONE COLD tells you the questions to ask to find out if a movie is so bad that it wraps around to great:
Does this movie star Brian Bosworth as a renegade cop who has to go undercover to take down a white supremacist biker gang? And is there a scene where a guy gets his hand mutilated because someone else shoves it into a spinning motorcycle wheel? And does Brian Bosworth’s character have a komodo dragon that he feeds smoothies made of Snickers and potato chips? And is there a part where a guy dresses like a member of the clergy so he can sneak a bunch of weapons into a courtroom?

If you’ve forgotten, The Boz was possibly the biggest college star to completely bomb in the NFL until Johnny Manziel came along. Remarkably, he’s even worse as an actor. Get this: they have him play a a loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results. Never been done in a movie before. Anyway, if you love flowing mullets, gratuitous violence, idiotic dialogue, random explosions, and EVEN MORE GRATUITOUS VIOLENCE all in the name of justice, this is your movie.

Enjoy the races!

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