Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What Happened to the Dual Meet?

As the sport continues to try and find ways to market itself and improve its popularity, I continue to wonder why it simply doesn't look at what has worked in the past! After all, track and field is not some new sport trying to find its way. We're as old as the Olympics themselves and have a rich and storied history.

And a big part of that history, a part that seems to be forgotten, is that of the Dual Meet - one team going head to head against another. Now, high schools still run dual meets - it's an integral part of their season. As a matter of fact, some of my early memories of track and field were watching rival high schools go toe to toe - knowing that one day I would take my place in one of those rivalries. As a matter of fact, I remember running in Jr High School against our biggest rival in a meet that had standing room only attendance! Now that was great track and field!

And as big as high school dual meets were, nothing could compare to collegiate dual meets! Back in the 60's, 70's and 80's the only thing bigger than UCLA vs USC were the Trials and Games themselves! Start the day off with a blistering 4x1 to set the stage. Then spend a couple of hours waiting for results to filter in from all over the track and the field as points added up in event after event. Athletes checking in to see what the current tally was to figure out what they had to do to try and put their team back in contention or to lengthen the lead. Pole vaulters, triple jumpers, milers, quartermilers, hurdlers, and high jumpers, all working together towards one goal - victory. And if you were lucky, as a spectator, it would all come down to the final event - the 4x4! Nothing beat the excitement of a couple of "mile" relay squads going toe to toe for today's team championship! THAT was entertainment!

I remember dual meets where Willie Smith ran 44.73; Clancy Edwards 20.03, 38.8 4x1's and 3:05 4x4s! Here in California, UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal used to get together for the Double Dual with four teams competing and two pairs of schools scoring against each other - i.e. UCLA v Stanford and USC v Cal! Track and field in the spring was exciting EVERY weekend, and the Relay/Invitational meets were just icing on the cake.

And if THAT wasn't enough, the cold war era brought us USA v Soviet Union, and USA v East Germany. Olympic quality competition and excitement wrapped up in a bow in two days time! I remember watching Valeri Borzov v Steve Williams at Edwards Stadium in Berkeley and Evelyn Ashford v Marita Koch at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. Now those were real showdowns!

So what happened? Well, Title IX seemed to take the wind out of the sails of collegiate duals. At least that is the time frame in which college duals went the way of the dinosaur. Now colleges send their athletes to invitational meets to get them ready for conference, regionals, and nationals. Though I must say that dual meet competition seemed to keep the athletes much sharper during the season.

Dual meets with elite/national teams seemed to end with the fall of the Iron Curtain/Berlin Wall! Dual meets were a way to maintain bragging rights between Olympics and track and field was a big "weapon" during the "Cold War".

But Title IX and the Cold War aside, what seems to have been missed is just how much theater dual meets brought to the sport of track and field! It was the one element that brought the "team" concept to the table. Duals helped with the development of rivalries within the sport, and it brought a healthy dose of nationalism to the table. It also provided a stage for many of our young athletes prior to their stepping up to Olympic competition. And there was no better training ground for learning how to compete under pressure than competing in a high level dual meet!

The college season could really use the return of the dual meet. Right now, the only difference between running in college and running as an elite athlete is that college athletes have to run at conference, regionals, and nationals in May. Otherwise they all run at Mt SAC, Texas Relays, Florida Relays, Penn Relays, Kansas Relays, and any of a number of other "Relay Carnivals" held throughout the spring. Can't tell the collegiates from the pros until Conference time! Of course the relay meets have adapted by having University/College sections and "Invitational" sections to separate the talent. Personally I'd much rather see UCLA v USC, or Alabama v Auburn, or Georgia v Georgia Tech, among others. Would make running in college seem more like, well, running in college! I think it would also help fans develop more of a following for the athletes - more of a local/team feel!

I would also like to see the National Federations get back to scheduling duals or quads to bring more international level competition to the fans outside of just the Olympics and World Championships. The emergence of Usain Bolt has prompted talk of a US v Jamaica dual meet. But it takes more than a couple of competitive races to make for a true rivalry. Three competitive events out of a full complement of sixteen doesn’t quite count as a rivalry - and a meet with only six or seven events only cheats the fans.

Now a "quad meet" that could really be exciting would be to take the US and Jamaica and add a couple of countries like Kenya and Russia. The US and Russia being solid all around teams, Jamaica with depth in the sprints, and Kenya strong in the middle and long distances! NOW you have a meet with world class potential in every event on the track AND the field and guaranteed excitement from start to finish!

Such a meet held in July (after national championships and before a Worlds or Olympics) and hosted somewhere like Berkeley with great site lines and excellent weather would be a draw for athletes and fans alike - and help build the sport here in the US by providing fans and would be fans with a birds eye view of some of the best athletes and competition on the planet! There's no better way to market the sport than great competition and a natural reason to cheer - nationalism.

You want to "rebuild" the sport in America, put some dual meets on the schedule!

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