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On Track, Field, Not on Strike

February 10, 1995|MIKE DOWNEY

Sometimes I feel guilty about not writing more about track and field.

Basketball this, baseball that, football, football, football, a little hockey, a bit of golf, boxing, basketball, basketball and more basketball, that's my life.

The 36th Sunkist indoor track meet will be run Saturday at the Sports Arena, and what a welcome relief it will be from all those balls and pucks.

Check it out. The high school competition begins around noon, followed by some of the greatest athletes on Earth, beginning at 6:30.

Every now and then, I pick up an old, yellowing newspaper and am reminded just how big track and field used to be.

The entire front sports page might be dominated by one football game and one dual meet between two university track teams.

It reminded me of spending Saturday afternoons glued to "Wide World of Sports" on the television, with Jim Ryun churning around some wooden oval or Bob Hayes craning his neck as he broke a tape.

In my mind, I can still picture Wyomia Tyus flying along 110 meters in 11 seconds, or Tamara Press flexing her biceps after heaving one nearly 60 feet in the shotput.

I grew up watching Bob Richards pole-vaulting his way through Wheaties commercials. This was when track-and-field greats didn't have to go abroad to do endorsements, as Carl Lewis later did.

Some of my most vivid memories of sport are from track and field--Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson arriving late at the Munich stadium, Mary Decker tumbling over Zola Budd's bare feet in Los Angeles, Billy Mills summoning up one last burst of energy during the 10,000 meters in Tokyo. These moments never go away.

Oh, and Ben Johnson running that race in Seoul. I know he was on drugs, I know it doesn't count, but that number on that scoreboard will linger with me forever--9.79. The man ran like a top-fuel dragster.

Track and field, sadly, seems to have hit hard times in America, even though the athletes are greater than ever. This is why Saturday's meet at the Sports Arena should be such a kick, and is worth your time if you have a few hours to spare.

There are physical marvels invited to this meet whose names might be totally unfamiliar to you. There's a wonderful Russian sprinter named Irina Privalova, and there's a world champion half-miler from Mozambique named Maria Mutola, and there's a terrifically swift American dash man named Dennis Mitchell and there's an outstanding hurdler from USC named Mark Crear, all athletes of uncommon ability.

There are women in track who burn with incredible competitive fire. There is the unstoppable miler Mirsada Buric-Adam, who trained for the last Olympic Games by running through the carnage of her native Bosnia. There is the tireless Ceci St. Geme, the distance runner who somehow juggles her training and career with the parenting of her three children.

My old friend Al Franken is the promoter of Saturday's invitational, and Al, you are right on the mark when you say of these athletes: "They might be a nice change of pace to all the negative stories that make the sports pages these days."

He's right. Aren't you tired of the trials, the strikes, the coke busts and the attacks on ice-skaters' kneecaps? I am.

Except for an occasional steroid scandal, it's a wonderful sport, track and field.

There was a time long ago when I would even frequent the high school competitions in the Midwest, and I can remember some of those events as though they happened yesterday. I remember a skinny kid named Frank Flores who chased the great Craig Virgin around an oval for two miles, then had to be carried from the track because the soles of his feet were covered with blood. He literally ran his feet off.

I can't promise that Saturday's meet will provide that kind of drama. But it wouldn't surprise me if it did.

Giving track and field athletes a little support today seems the least I can do. They give us the best they've got, and they hardly ever go on strike.

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