After watching this year’s version of our national championships, it clearly paled in comparison to the Olympic and World Championship selection versions. As a matter of fact, it paled in comparison to this year’s NCAA championships. With little to gain by attending in an “off season” many chose not to. There were bright spots mind you. David Oliver, Kara Patterson, Wallace Spearmon, and Bershawn Jackson had noteworthy performances. But for the most part it was a lackluster meet – prompting some to question the fan loyalty of host city Des Moines.
But alas, the real issue, as it oft seems to be with this sport, is how to get your top athletes to the track when in this case there isn’t much on the line. No spots on a World or Olympic team, and as I’ve thought about it there are no competitions that require the brand “Team USA” once the athletes leave the stadium! Not much incentive to participate other than having your name on a piece of paper saying “National Champion”. That and the pride of having competed against your peers – which doesn’t seem to mean much these days.
In the aftermath of this year’s championships I’ve even seen the suggestion thrown out there that we simply not have a championships in “off years” – just skip the meet altogether. As I’ve entertained that thought it seems rather harsh – sort of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Yes the meet was somewhat of a downer, but the goal should be to get the athletes to the track not simply get rid of the track. So I went back in my mythical time machine to a time when the sport was a bit more robust to look for ideas. Then it hit me – the Sports Festival!
What’s a Sports Festival you ask? Well once upon a time, before there was a World Championships, we only had the Olympics every four years with nothing at all in between. The old Soviet Union used to hold their own version of the Olympics that they called the Spartakiad. They brought together all the different Republics (now individual nations) as teams to compete among themselves. They used these competitions to prepare their athletes for the Olympic Games.
After our boycott of the 1980 Games we did something similar, as our various athletic teams had a long layoff facing them with the last Games being in 1976 and the next one not taking place until 1984. So, beginning in 1981 the USOC began the “Sports Festival” as a replacement for the Olympic Games. The US was broken up into four regions (North, South, East and West) and we competed against each other in several Olympic sports, like swimming, basketball and of course track & field. These competitions were held throughout the 80’s skipping the Olympic seasons. The track portion of the Festival was held in various places across the country: Syracuse (‘81), Indianapolis (‘82), Colorado Springs (‘83), Baton Rouge (‘85), Houston (‘86), Durham, NC (‘87), and Norman OK (‘89). The most memorable of these being the 1983 edition which saw Evelyn Ashford (10.79) and Calvin Smith (9.93) both set new WR’s in the 100 meter dash in back to back races.
The meet was discontinued heading into the 90’s. I’m guessing because by then the World Championships were firmly in place and scheduled to be run every two years starting with the ‘91/’93 versions. Giving us the three year championships cycle we now have. But during the course of the 80’s the Sports Festival gave us the opportunity to not only have a meet to emulate the Games, but provided an opportunity for a lot of up and coming athletes to compete in a championship environment and begin to hone their competitive skills. It provided a forum for coaches and athletes in different regions to work together and create some camaraderie, and for athletes all over the country to display and work on their relay skills under pressure. In short it brought us together as a national team under the guise of four regional teams. And I think it’s time to bring it back!
Instead of a National Championships in the off seasons we could run a Sports Festival (Regional Championships) meet. Choose head coaches by region (North, South, East and West) and allow them to select their regional staffs as well as team personnel. Team selection would be based on the area that athletes attended high school as their “home” region. Teams would consist of eight athletes per discipline which would allow for quarters, semis and finals – and not lead to the meet becoming just for the elite. Relays would be included (two per region) and team scoring would take place just like the NCAA Championships.
The concept would work on several levels. Getting coaches together from all over the country would serve as a sort of clinic/mentoring environment as they could all share ideas. Same for all the athletes that would have a chance to both learn from each other, as well as being introduced to ideas from coaches other than their own. Athletes working together as “teams” would have an opportunity to begin to develop bonds – especially those working together on relays. Ah those pesky relays. Sports Festival squads could be the beginning of developing some national teams for the majors! And participation in the Sports Festival could be used as a criteria for selection to national teams. Even if a top level athlete did not compete they could be required to attend to serve as a mentor or to perform some community promotion duties. The idea being to have our top athletes all gathered together for the event to provide the fans with a great meet during the off season.
It can work. It’s worked in the past. We can simply update it for the present. It would be a great promotional tool for the sport, a great developmental tool for the athletes, and a great competition for the fans. It’s an idea whose time has come – again.