How can track and field expect to be treated as a professional sport when we struggle to define who the professionals are? This is not a popular opinion and the immediate gut reaction by most fans is dismissal: the elite side of the sport needs exclusivity.
It is not a question of whether or not a high school or college can compete with professional athletes. We know they can and many of the biggest stars today were once the precocious up-and-comers who were the subject of our obsession with young talent. But what does it matter if a kid runs 4:02 for the mile in a high school-only race or 3:57 following professionals? The goal is not to run pretty fast when young, it’s to run extremely fast when older.
This is not a question of ability; the clock confirms that every year there are a handful of teenagers who still wear their high school uniforms – and slews of collegians – that can run competitive times.
As 12x gold medalist, Michael Johnson shared, this is an issue of marketing.
And I hear and acknowledge the cries about how including high school athletes in professional meets is building intrigue, creating storylines, and selling tickets – and that’s partially true. The issue is not that they are in high school. It’s that they are amateurs.
Think of it in terms of other sports. Some of the best current basketball players in the world are still playing their one year in the NCAA, or are 7’4” teenage prodigies playing pro ball in France until they’re NBA draft eligible. They’re good enough to do it, but they don’t also play in the NBA. This makes it easy for the NBA to create a schedule that we can follow and also lets fans keep tabs on who’s on their team’s roster.
The opposing point of view in this debate is rooted in a fundamental disagreement over the purpose of the sport. Do you think:
a. it’s about discovering the upper limits of physical performance? You love fast times and nothing gets you more excited than seeing records broken?
b. it’s all about entertainment? You love a good race and nothing gets you more excited than seeing the best in the world compete against one another?
If you’re in the first camp, then I respect you for it and that’s the end of the conversation. (Of course, I hope you enjoy attending empty track meets that are glorified time trials and continue to beat your head against the wall trying to figure out why the sport hasn’t caught any mainstream attention and so many athletes are struggling financially!)
The fact is that this sport is difficult to follow and having so many athletes, disciplines, and events only contribute to that problem. Track & field lacks a cohesive product and a loosely defined definition of who is a professional makes it impossible to create the infrastructure to generate interest outside of the Olympics.
And this current setup ultimately results in fewer head-to-head match-ups between the sports’ stars and individuals acting in their own best interest, not that of the greater good. Rousseau figured out the social contract in 1762, but be patient – track and field will understand it soon.
This isn’t non-pro athletes’ faults for participating – it’s a wonderful opportunity for them. And it is not the meet director’s fault for giving a lane to a high schooler – it sells tickets. You know how the government has decided it is illegal to run a red light even if doing so will get us to our destination sooner? It becomes the job of World Athletics to be the responsible adult in the room and make the hard decision that some fans will hate, since it’s for our own collective good.
Stop trying to promote the sport from the ground up and place professionalism on a pedestal instead. We know kids run track, but we need them to watch it.
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