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SOUND AND VISION

Track and Field, TV Has a Problem With You

August 13, 2001|Mike Penner

Feeling a little nostalgic for the Sydney Summer Olympics, I decided to spend the weekend watching tape-delayed track and field.

On Saturday, I watched Thursday's men's 110-meter hurdles final and Friday's women's 200-meter final and Wednesday's men's high jump final and Monday's women's 100-meter final--did you hear: Marion Jones lost! --and a men's 100-meter final held six days earlier.

On Sunday, I watched the U.S. team win Saturday's women's 400-meter relay final and American Savante Stringfellow place second in Saturday's men's long jump final and UCLA alum John Godina win the gold medal in a men's shot put final held Aug. 4.

This was great, I thought.

I was getting very misty-eyed, getting into a very Sydney 2000 state of mind. I was getting ready to fire up a meat pie and crack open a Victoria Bitter and break out the Vegemite so I could grease my car.

Tie me kangaroo down, sport.

This is how Americans consume their track and field, you know. We have been trained. Whether it's the Olympics on NBC or the World Track and Field Championships on ABC, if you live in this country and you want to watch the best athletes on the planet run, jump and throw, you will have to go to the videotape.

A whole generation of American TV viewers is growing up knowing this and this only about the sport of track: Runners fast, television slow. To them, Maurice Greene is the guy they read about on the Internet winning his third 100-meter world championship before e-mailing the story to a half-dozen friends and doing a Google search to pull up his bio and downloading his photo to use as a screensaver before sitting in front of the TV to watch him win his third 100-meter world championship.

And you want to know why track and field is dying in this country?

Kids today can watch Kobe Bryant go end-to-end and Randy Moss run a down-and-out and Ichiro Suzuki go from first to third and they will see it start to finish, in real time, the outcome happening before their eyes. But the men's 400 relay finals at the world championships? On your mark, get set . . . we'll show it to you in four hours on another network.

That is precisely the neat little stunt ABC pulled on viewers after teasing them all weekend to hang in there, that men's 400 relay is really something, you're really not going to want to miss this.

You want controversy? Saturday, ABC took a look back at the furor surrounding the over-the-top victory celebration by the U.S. 400 relay team last year in Sydney.

You want courage? Later in the same telecast, ABC showed Jon Drummond cramping up while running the first leg of a relay heat and valiantly plugging on to get the baton to a teammate and the U.S. into the semifinals.

You want drama? Just before signing off Saturday, ABC reported that the U.S., in "a developing story," had been disqualified for running outside the lane . . . only to open its Sunday telecast with the "news" that the U.S. had been reinstated after successfully appealing the disqualification Saturday night.

You want poise under pressure? Dennis Mitchell and Tim Montgomery bobbled their handoff in the semifinals but Montgomery stayed cool as he made sure the exchange was legal and then blew away the rest of the field to keep the United States in contention for the gold.

You want to know who's going to win the final?

We're not going to show it to you, ABC informed West Coast viewers shortly before 3 p.m.

Tune in to ESPN2 at 7 p.m. and they will show it to you.

What ABC wasn't telling viewers is that track and field in this country is a ratings dog and that the network would rather show you the Dayton Air Show at 3 p.m., followed by Sheena at 4, instead of staying with the world championships and airing the men's 400 relay final, scheduled for 4:10 p.m.

So what viewers got, just before the first jet plane barrel-rolled over Ohio, was ABC's Carol Lewis declaring, "The relays are always, I think, the most exciting part of any major championship"--althoughnot exciting enough to be shown live, or even by this network, because, well, you know, it's just track and field.

All play-by-play commentator Terry Gannon, poor guy, could do was ask analyst Michael Johnson for his prediction for the relay final.

Johnson said that the U.S. men's 400 and 1,600 relay teams have "tradition to uphold and I think both teams . . . will uphold the tradition tonight."

But, first, here come the stunt pilots.

News bulletin, networks: You can stop calling emergency executive meetings to scratch your heads over the decline of TV sports ratings. This is how and why viewers are finding other things to do and watch instead of your half-cooked, half-finished, half-fast coverage of athletics.

It's a good thing the networks weren't doing this 50 years ago. Game 3 of the 1951 National League playoffs, middle of the eighth inning, Dodgers lead the Giants, 4-1, and the network has to cut away for Biplanes On Parade.

"So, Russ Hodges, your thoughts as we head into the bottom of the eighth, which will to be shown four hours later on our sister network?" "I don't think the Giants are going to win the pennant, I don't think the Giants are going to win the pennant."

By the way, for those who didn't have access to ESPN2 or four hours to kill Sunday, the U.S. men's 400 relay team won the gold medal.

As you may have heard, it was really exciting.

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