Liao: USATF gets it right with off-distance races at USA Indoors

By Kevin Liao

March 5, 2017

USA Track and Field sometimes gets grief but it certainly got things right this weekend with off-distance races at the USA Indoor Championships.

As much as I love to watch, say, Ajee Wilson race Brenda Martinez in the 800 meters, it’s a matchup we’ve seen plenty of times before. And more often than not, the script will play out in a predictable fashion –Wilson dictating the pace from the front, while Martinez bides her time and tries to close hard.

Contesting a 600 meter race brought an entirely new dynamic – unpredictability.

With Wilson facing a really, really good quarter-miler in Courtney Okolo (NCAA record holder, 4×400 gold medalist from Rio), we had no idea how race tactics would play out, let alone what the final outcome would be.

Would Okolo utilize her speed to set a hot early pace that Wilson couldn’t handle, and then try to hang on?

Or would Wilson – in her typically calm, cool and collected style – set the pace and hope to hold off the 49 second 400m speed of Okolo?

It turned out the race played out in the latter fashion with Wilson leading wire-to-wire and winning in 1:23.84. Okolo finished just a stride behind in 1:24.00.

But it wasn’t even the result that mattered as much as the fact we collectively had no clue how the race was going to unfold.

This level of intrigue is often missing from elite-level track and field.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the Millrose Games two mile and how it brought together not just a group of athletes from different events but their varying tactics and strengths that made for a super compelling race. The infamous Michael Johnson vs. Donovan Bailey 150 meter race at the Sky Dome was universally mocked but it did sell a lot of tickets and get people to tune into track and field on TV.

To the casual viewer who may have come across track and field on NBC while scrolling through channels, they may have been impressed by the repeated number of records that were falling. It felt as if every race (minus the entertainingly slow and tactical ones) provided us with either a world lead, world best or U.S. championships record. That’s altitude for ya in the sprints.

The off-distance races bring the same type of potential to the sport.

I’m not a huge indoor track guy, so an off-year indoor championships could easily have flown under the radar not just for me, but for a ton of non-hardcore track fans. But races like Wilson vs. Okolo certainly captured my attention and has the potential to do the same with casual fans.

In this case, USATF deserves props for an experiment gone right.

Kevin Liao

Sacramento-based amateur runner, photographer and writer. Once interviewed Taoufik Makhloufi in French. Enjoys politics a lot. Follow him on Twitter @RunLiao.