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Track And Field Consciously Becoming More Fan-Friendly

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

In the last decade, many of track and field's faces continued to compete at high levels, faded gracefully into retirement, or were banished from the sport in drug scandals. Much like professional cycling, the fans of track and field found other events to satisfy their thirst for competition while they waited for the sport to clean up or for the Olympics when they watched despite their doubts as to the fairness of competition. 

Now, with the drug scandals in the past, the sport is trying to build on the names people still remember while introducing fans to the next.

Dan O'Brien won Olympic gold in the decathlon in 1996, and for a time was one of the most popular athletes in the United States. He says the sport's governing body and the athletes have returned to what made track and field so popular originally.

0628 bm track dan o'brien

"I think the biggest change has come with the athletes. They're making themselves more accessible to the media. They're creating their own characters, really.  They're more than happy to wave and talk in between jumps and throws and things like that.  I think It's the accessibility to these athletes that has changed probably the most."

0628 bm michelle carter


Unknowingly proving O'Brien's point this week was Michelle Carter. After her qualifying throw and before the finals in the women's shot put - which she won - she talked with any fan or media outlet who asked for time. She says she likes the way the events are presented.

0628 bm track discus

"This is way better. They're actually explaining what's going on. They're talking about the two different techniques. They're explaining what the qualifying mark is or why they have to have the qualifying mark. It's really informing the public about our event."

0628 bm track pole vault

O'Brien provides color commentary for the USA Track and Field simulcasts online.

"I think the changes made at USA Track and Field from the standpoint of you know, what do we want to do with this thing from an entertainment standpoint? And that's to make it fan-friendly, to help fans understand what it's really about."

But, O'Brien says in the end, the competition still has to be the compelling factor that draws new fans and keeps old ones coming back. 

"You still start at this line. You run to this line. The fastest one gets there," O'Brien says.

Speaking of coming back, if the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships draw more than 22,500 people and have $650,000 in ticket sales in the five days of events - including the shot put on the Capitol lawn - the 2017 championships will return to Sacramento. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau says attendance is already more than half that with much larger crowds expected Saturday and Sunday. That's good news for fans, athletes and organizers hoping for a track and field renaissance.

Find competition results here.