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February 8, 2018

The Spectacle

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.

I watched a football game on Sunday night, and you probably did too.

Add in endless talking head analysis of everything except the actual game itself, over-produced music, and crass commercialization, and it’s not just peak NFL but peak American culture. It was the Patriots versus the Eagles, after all.

I was very pleased that the Eagles won. Not because long-term domination by a handful of teams has made the NFL experience an exercise in futility for the majority of fans. Not because the most well-known faces of the Patriots—Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady—are as smug and punchable as any in pro sports. Not because one of my best friends is living out Silver Linings Playbook (aside from the getting with Jennifer Lawrence part). And not because I wanted to see how stupid Philadelphians would get. No, I was happy with the outcome because the Eagles used to play in Franklin Field, home of the greatest annual track meet in America.

Yeah, I said it. The Penn Relays is the greatest annual track meet in America. Now, I know I’m going to get tons of Oregon bros coming at me with DURR PRE CLASSIC IS THE BESTEST YOU MORAN!!! And from their viewpoint they are right. But from my viewpoint, nothing compares to the Penn Relays. It’s the only annual meet in the United States that has the atmosphere of a major college football game. It’s a spectacle.

Why do major college football games draw such gigantic crowds? The top programs have more 100,000+ regular-season turnouts in one year than the NFL has had in its entire history. They don’t go in such massive numbers because the level of competition is greater than in the NFL; it isn’t. They go because it’s a spectacle. There is the game, yes, but there is the campus and the tailgating and the marching bands and the cheerleaders. It’s a big giant party every weekend in a way that the NFL can only replicate once a year.

This is why I watch the Tour de France every year but never watch any other cycling. The racing may be the central part of the spectacle, but there is clearly much more to that spectacle. It’s why the NCAA basketball tournament is such a big deal (well, that and the gambling). Major soccer games are spectacles because the fans are insane. Horse racing may be a shadow of its former self but the Kentucky Derby is still a big spectacle. The Millrose Games used to be a spectacle, but that ship sailed almost thirty years ago. The remaining spectacles in US track and field are the Penn Relays, the Olympic Trials, and the Boston and New York City marathons.

We do have the advantage of being an individual sport and sometimes the spectacle is a traveling show that a magnetic personality wherever he goes. Obviously Usain Bolt was like that, but so were Jesse Owens, Emil Zatopek, Jim Ryun, and a few others. FloJo was one for a brief summer. Across all sports, Muhammed Ali was the greatest there ever was in this regard.

You want attention? Figure out how to make it a spectacle, and they will come.

LAST WEEK’S MEDAL WINNERS

Handing out the medals for the best in college track…

Gold – Millrose Games
College track had no winners at the Millrose Games, but the kids are all right.

Youngstown State’s Chad Zallow was fourth in the 60 hurdles, just one place lower than how he finished at the NCAA Indoor last year. Missouri’s Karissa Schweizer was only a half-second off the win in the 3000 and earned a collegiate record for her efforts. Syracuse’s Justyn Knight was even closer to winning the men’s 3000. And in the concluding Wanamaker Mile, New Mexico’s Josh Kerr was closing on winner Chris O’Hare but was too far back and had to settle for second.

That these college kids ran fast is nice, but what makes it fun to me is seeing them mix it up with the pros. This was the norm for indoor track back in the 70s and earlier as well as many of the major domestic outdoor meets. It’s beneficial from the athletes’ perspective because it gives them pro experience while still amateurs, and it also exposes them to a wider range of tactics. O’Hare stole the Wanamaker mile by making a bold move to the front, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone try it next month at the NCAAs.

Silver – Flat track miles
Edward Cheserek earned a tidy $9,000 in just under 4 minutes on Saturday by winning the Camel City Elite mile in 3:53.85. That’s the third-fastest mile ever run on a 200 meter flat track, behind only 3:52.30 and 3:53.42 run by Frank O’Mara in 1986 and ’87.

Two college kids ran sub-4:00 in Cheserek’s wake, Virginia Tech’s Vincent Ciattei and Patrick Joseph. Just a week earlier, Illinois’ Jon Davis turned the trick on the Illini’s 200 meter flat track. Before that, the last collegian to run sub-4:00 on a 200 meter flat track was Florida State’s Tom Lancashire back in 2006. It’s been twenty-two years since multiple collegians did it in a single year.

There is a pervasive belief that it’s impossible to run fast on a flat track. There is no doubt that it is more difficult than on a banked or oversized track. The conversion factor for championships qualifying gives about an extra three seconds at 4:00.0 pace. But that no one had done it for twelve years means that people had simply given up trying.

To be clear, it was never that commonly done—three times in a year is the maximum (2018, 1997, 1987, and 1986). The biggest and fastest races of yesteryear were almost exclusively on banked board tracks of anywhere from 134 to 161 meters. By the time that indoor invitational circuit collapsed in the 90s, oversized and banked tracks were becoming more and more commonplace and the biggest races shifted to those facilities.

Sometimes a fast race seems to come out of nowhere, but more often it takes some planning. Davis’ effort was set up with a pair of pacemakers and Ciattei and Joseph ran theirs in an elite invitational. The point is that there is nothing magical about a specific track: the primary variable in a fast time is the athlete, and the secondary variable is the willingness to go fast from the gun, aided or not.

Bronze – Weight Throw Showdown
The men’s weight throw at Michigan’s Power Five Invitational brought together three of the top four on the collegiate list: North Carolina State’s Josh Davis (#1), and Michigan’s Joe Ellis (#2) and Grant Cartwright (#4). More or less it was a preview of the NCAA Championships, and I saw it in person.

Ellis and Cartwright had big throws right out of the gate while Davis had foul trouble early and looked totally off-balance. Ellis took the lead in the second round and never lost it, setting multiple PRs on his way to his best throw of 22.71 meters (74′ 6¼”). Cartwright was second, and Davis finally got it together on his final throws to finish third with 22.11 meters (72′ 6½”). While Davis is the national leader with 23.24 meters (76′ 3″), that was back in the first weekend of December and only once since then has he come remotely close to that distance. Based on what I saw , I’d call Ellis the favorite at the NCAAs next month.

DNF – Raven Saunders
Ole Miss shot putter Raven Saunders announced that her collegiate career is over and that she is taking time off from throwing for undisclosed health reasons. In a press release, she said “Over time, I have been dealing with some personal and medical issues that have led me to come to this decision.” It’s unusual to say the least, but let’s hope the time away is well spent.

Saunders is doubtlessly the greatest collegiate women’s shot putter of all time. Besides being a four-time NCAA champion and the indoor and outdoor collegiate record holder, her fifth-place finish at the 2016 Olympic Games is the highest ever by an active collegian.

DQ – Ah, college life
The Deadspin headline reads Entire Claremont Colleges Track Team Suspended After Accusation Of Assault During Nude Heist Caper.

Now that I’ve hooked you into the story, some background. The Claremont Colleges Consortium is a group of five southern California colleges with adjoining campuses, all within roughly one square mile. They are so small that they join forces for athletics; Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps Colleges make up the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps teams, and Pomona and Pitzer Colleges make up the Pomona-Pitzer teams. They are natural rivals across all sports.

Apparently some kind of initiation ritual at CMS led a few members of the men’s team to run a few hundred meters to Pomona’s rec center and steal a photo off a wall. Whatever poor schmuck was working the front desk attempted to stop them and was held down while the prank was continued, leading to accusations of assault. That a few of the pranksters did this while nude is likely a complicating factor. The entire CMS teams are suspended from competitions and practices pending an investigation.

One would presume the coaches are trying to crack an omerta and the athletes won’t budge. Of course those in positions of authority, including the track coaches, cannot allow these kinds of actions to go without sanction. But my gut reaction is to really, really miss college while laughing my ass off.

The student newspaper reported that “[t]he C[laremont] P[olice] D[epartment] log said the students were running naked throughout the 5C campuses, with Campus Safety in pursuit.” Even with their junk flapping in the wind, a DIII track team should have no trouble outrunning the pigs.

THIS WEEK’S MEETS

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

Three dips: Husky Classic
Live webcast via Flotrack (time TBA)
The distance races are always the big draw at the Husky Classic. There is a pretty good collection of pros in the men’s and women’s 5000s, but from a collegiate perspective it’s the 3000s that have the best matchups. Interestingly enough, Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen is in the women’s 5,000 meters with the NIKE Bowerman Track Club. Last fall, she announced that she will be leaving the biking and swimming to focus on the marathon for the 2020 Olympics. She moved to Portland so training under Jerry Schumacher would make sense.

husky classic gwen jorgensen nike bowerman track club

Three dips: Dick Small Invitational

Two dips: Tyson Invitational
Live webcast on SEC+ Network from 5:30pm on Friday and 2:00pm on Saturday
I’d probably give this meet three dips if I knew who was running in it, but no entries have yet been posted as of Thursday morning. This meet is at Arkansas, whose track has a fast reputation for the long sprints. Many of the top in the NCAA will likely be here, but everyone is looking for a fast time instead of bona fide head-to-head competition and so the top seeds may be split up into different heats.

One Dip: David Hemery Valentine Invitational
Live webcast via Flotrack (time TBA)
There are some very good races in this meet as well, but they get lost in a sea of bodies. I mean, there are 209 entries in the men’s 400 meters alone. That’s at least 35 heats. Track meets of that length are not great spectator experiences.

BAD MOVIE OF THE WEEK: CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC

If you weren’t alive in the 1970s you can’t really understand it. The Village People were created by a music producer to try to cash in on the expanding macho gay culture which was fairly open in places like New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Castro district and a bit more underground most everywhere else. Much to their surprise, the band became a crossover hit. They rode the crest of the disco wave with catchy tunes and fun lyrics, and while middle America at the time was terribly uncomfortable with gayness they were also mostly oblivious to it. A mostly intact version of the Village People still tour even today; about five years ago I saw them play in front of maybe 200 people at a small historic theater in Tiffin, Ohio.

The record company execs decided to cash in further with a movie, the story of how the Village People got together. Or sort of approximately how it might have happened. The problem was that disco turned out to be a short-lived phenomenon, and both it and the Village People had already become a kind of a bad joke by the time the film came out. It was directed by Nancy Walker, a fine comedic actress but whose directing experience was limited to a few episodes of Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore. The result was a glorious mess of a film which swept the first Golden Raspberry Awards.

It’s really long, just over two hours. The first half isn’t bad so much as boring — the stars of the show, the Village People, don’t even show up until the second half. Steve Guttenberg stars as a goofy aspiring DJ in Greenwich Village, and a then-male-presenting Bruce Jenner as evil music producer Ron White. This is Jenner’s only film acting credit ever, and the final cut includes him flubbing some lines–which means those were the best takes they had! The writers thought it would be funny to make Jenner, then known as the World’s Greatest Athlete, into a complete klutz, but his acting is so bad that it falls flat. Like every other part of the film’s first hour.

But the second hour…oh, it’s cinematic gold, some of the most ridiculous musical numbers in movie history. A sample of the reviews from critics and fans:

I urge everyone to buy a bottle of booze and see this movie immediately. If only the the Construction Worker’s song “I love you to death” in which girls ride atop giant pistons and sprinkle glitter all over his jeans.

Boy, where to start? …how about Steve Guttenberg rollerskating down the streets of New York, dancing to his transistor radio and wearing his corduroy OP short shorts and and Izod shirt with the collar flipped up?

I forgot to mention the musical number devoted to milk, replete with sequin-clad dancing girls and Valerie Perrine lazing about in a giant drink glass.

It did make a tenth of its budget back at the box office and it’s interesting to wonder how it was able to do that.

Enjoy the meets!

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