Midweek Fixture: Track elbows its way back into field of vision

By Dylan Cleaver

The New Zealand athletics team won four medals in Rio, an impressive effort. Photos Getty/Photosport/AP
The New Zealand athletics team won four medals in Rio, an impressive effort. Photos Getty/Photosport/AP

There was a moment in the Olympic 1500m final that symbolised not just Nick Willis' race, but also athletics' position in our sporting landscape.

On the second lap, after the super-slow pace dictated that his pre-race plan to stay wide was flawed, Willis fought for position on the inside lane. American Ben Blankenship didn't want him there and almost pushed him off the track. Willis stayed strong, got the position, raced home for third. He didn't just force his way back into position, but he built upon the work of Adams, Walsh and McCartney and forced track and field back into the national conscious.

Long may it remain.

Many will see sailing as the big winners of Rio de Janeiro. They were excellent, as they should have been. They won gold in the 49ers, which had the backing of the Team New Zealand machinery, one of the silvers went to a gold medal-winning 470 crew from London, while it was a welcome entrance to the medal circle for Alex Maloney and Molly Meech (49er-FX) and Sam Meech (Laser).

The bulk of sailing's $18.4 million investment went into the hands of a few, and they delivered. Really, the only question was why there weren't crews representing all the classes, especially given the proud history in boardsailing?

They might have been missing gold, but athletics was the real winner - and it was an altogether much bigger surprise.

The silver for mighty Val Adams was laced with drama of the right kind after all the drama of the wrong kind in London. Tomas Walsh made good the gains he's demonstrated over the past few years. Eliza McCartney smiled, giggled and vaulted her way into our hearts and Willis, at 33 the old stager, muscled track back into vogue after field threatened to steal all the glory. Yeah, they're missing a gold, but we'll take this haul any day of the week over Adams' gold and nothing else at London four years ago.

Track and field is a global sport. According to IAAF president and former Olympic superstar Lord Coe, it is the second most popular sport in the world. You can find all sorts of metrics to back up all kinds of arguments, but in terms of true global reach, he's probably right.

Being a force in track and field is something to aspire to. Stats-driven website fivethirtyeight.com adjusted the medal counts from London based on sports people actually care about - New Zealand dropped from 13 to, um, five.

Don't panic. It doesn't actually mean anything. Just like the silly per capita table we love to pull out here to make us feel puffed up, it is essentially meaningless. What it did show, though, was that track and field enjoyed 2,300,000,000 global television viewer hours in London, close to 800 million hours more than the next most popular Olympic sport, swimming, and twelve times more than rowing.

Again, this does not mean we should stop caring about rowing. Just as football's global dominance should have no bearing on our love for rugby, neither should we feel guilty about our proficiency at propelling skiffs through flat water.

If, however, demonstrating our sporting prowess on a global stage is important to High Performance Sport NZ, and we're told it is, then this upturn in athletic fortunes is a massive boon that should be capitalised on.

BUT... that is not the main reason why track and field should vault their way from Tier 2 status to Tier 1, as of yesterday.

Athletics is about the most universal sport of all. You can do it and be good at it if you're short and squat or tall and thin. You can do it whether you were bought up in hot climes or cool; whether you're from a developing economy or developed.

Rich or poor.

The medallists in the men's javelin came from Germany, Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago. Those three countries have about as much in common with each other as corn chips, kale and sausage.

Athletics New Zealand should be already planning a roadshow. They can take the carnival to Fendalton and Manurewa and it would resonate the same: you don't need much more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, but come along to your nearest athletics club and we'll find a sport that suits you... guarantee it.

They'll need funding to pull it off properly. The sort of funding that won't produce medallists in Tokyo in four years time, but could for LA 2024, or whatever city the IOC decides to lay waste to next.

More importantly, though, it's the sort of funding that gets kids off couches, gets them off tablets and gaming consoles, and gets them on to our fields.

All kids.

Not just the ones whose parents can afford it.


It is hard to be too critical of the pabulum that passes for reporting on the Olympic Games when you have done it yourself. I've been to Beijing and barely asked a question about human rights abuses. But some of the nonsense that has passed for commentary on Rio has been breathtaking. To summarise much of it has been of the, "despite all the doomsayers this has been great and I haven't been robbed and had a great time learning to samba and make caipirinhas".

Hosting the Olympics was meant to fix this. It didn't. Mix your cocktails with this water.

Baseball fans might have read about the ongoing stoush between former Mets' superstars Dwight 'Doc' Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.

The two phenoms were also the subject of a recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Doc & Darryl, though it was one of the weaker ones in that series. Reaching back into its peerless Vault, Sports Illustrated pulled up this 1995 feature about the two, which both retold and foretold trouble.

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