BOSTON — American public interest in track and field always peaks during the Olympics, which is why one shouldn't be too quick to draw conclusions about the sport's general health from what happens then.
The view offered by last summer's Games in Atlanta had a packed, 85,000-seat Olympic Stadium cheering on sprinter Michael Johnson to 200- and 400-meter victories.
Roughly a month before, however, thousands of those same seats sat empty during the US Olympic trials used to select the American team. After the Games, the track itself was removed in order to convert the stadium into the new home of baseball's Atlanta Braves. This latter development, in a sense, symbolizes track and field's lost visibility on the American sports scene.
Interest in track has waned as other sports have more aggressively marketed and positioned themselves in the modern TV age.
Although track has lagged behind in North America, this Sunday's One-to-One Challenge of Champions in Toronto is being hailed as the kind of innovation track needs.
The event's centerpiece is a million-dollar, 150-meter sprint between Olympic champions Johnson and Donovan Bailey, a showdown put in jeopardy by Bailey's ailing knee at press time.
For a track aficionado like Pete Cava, press information director for USA Track and Field, the sport's Indianapolis-based national governing body, such a spectacle is "good and bad. The great part is that people are talking about it, a lot of people. The down side is it's not the real thing. It's not a true competition. It's an exhibition."
Johnson, who will make $500,000 just for showing up, considers the challenge a win-win opportunity for himself and the sport. "I know there's no world record and it's just for entertainment," he says, "but if that's a gimmick, every sport has a gimmick. This is something new and different. It will get a lot of people involved, even those who are not track fans."
The event clearly has the pizazz many competitions lack. Media exposure could exceed that for the US national championships in June.
In this century, Jesse Owens once raced a horse, which indicates that showmanship has been tried before.
Even in Europe, where track and field enjoys a large public following and long tradition, promoters are exploring new approaches. A duel similar to the Johnson-Bailey showdown will be held tomorrow in Hengelo, The Netherlands, between runners Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Noureddine Morceli of Algeria
To stay abreast of the times, some European promoters are holding high jump and pole vault competitions to music. Brian Vandenberg, an athlete agent who has attempted to promote the concept in the United States, believes the one-event format lends itself to television. In the attempt to cover the myriad events that make up a regular meet, he says, TV coverage is often too scattershot. "When you show just one jump, there's no suspense, no drama; it's meaningless," he says.
US promoters have sought their own means of selling track. Hour-long decathlons, for example, have occasionally replaced what is normally a two-day competition.
The irony to track and field's struggles in the US is that participation is high. Statistics show that in high school, it trails only football and basketball in the number of boys competing, and is No. 2 among girls.
College track, however, has in some ways suffered for the very opportunities it affords, says Sam Bell, head track coach at Indiana University, which hosts the June 4-7 National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in Bloomington.
Bell explains that the NCAA began capping the number of track scholarships in 1976 as a cost-cutting measure and has lowered the number institutions can offer to 12.6. This, he suggests, is far too few to create a true team in a sport with a multitude of events. "If you give partial scholarships," he adds, "you get partial athletes."
The college feeder system may have been diminished, but American athletes still came through with flying colors at the Olympics last summer, winning 13 gold medals. This should have been a selling point for the sport, yet the Mobil Corp., a longtime sponsor for US track and field, has largely withdrawn its support since the Games, and others have followed suit. Three meets on the annual US indoor circuit, including the once-thriving Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles, were discontinued.
Many observers have felt the financially strapped USA Track and Field organization has needed more dynamic, progressive leadership. As a result, the organization decided last December not to extend the contract of executive director Ollan Cassell, a former Olympic runner who has administered the sport in the US for more than 30 years.
This weekend, the USATF's executive committee will interview three finalists for the job: Craig Masback, a former miler and current television commentator; Thomas Chestnut, a former pro basketball executive; and Robert Vowels Jr., an assistant commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. Whoever steps in has a massive rebuilding job ahead of him.