Monthly Archives: June 2014

Saying Goodbye to the Track at KU’s Memorial Stadium

kutrackThe University of Kansas removed the track from their Memorial Stadium this week. They were the last BCS conference school to do so. It’s bittersweet to see the track torn out. I have a lot of personal connections to that facility — from both my academic and athletic careers.

Growing up in Kansas running cross country and track, KU was held in high esteem. The University hosted annual cross country and track meets for the region’s best high schoolers each fall and spring. The fall cross country meet predated the state meet and served as a de facto championship for several years. Those early meets were held on the hills surrounding the stadium (now it’s held at Rim Rock Farm, a beautiful cross country course north of Lawrence). But the track meet — the Kansas Relays — was the granddaddy of them all. It lasted three-days and hosted athletes competing at the high school, college, and professional levels. It was a major event that attracted thousands of spectators. As recently as 2006 I remember their being as many as 30,000 spectators — enough to fill half of the stadium.

The meet has been held annually for over 80 years. It’s been an important meet in the history of the sport, too. During track and field’s heyday Relay Carnivals became common and extremely popular. Nationally there are four major relay meets: the Penn Relays, Texas Relays, the Drake Relays, and the Kansas Relays. The Kansas Relays are continuing on, of course. Track and Field has long been one of KU’s marquee programs and they built a brand-new, state-of-the art facility, which the program badly needed.

My sadness in seeing the track go is strictly nostalgic. By most accounts the Memorial Stadium track wasn’t great. It was one of the few facilities that I ran on still measured in yards instead of meters (because, as the rumor goes, they didn’t have the room to expand it). I always remember it being a little hard, uneven and patchy. But the surface didn’t matter to me and thousands of other athletes. It was an honor to be running at KU, dwarfed by the towering walls of the stadium under the bright lights, with a rowdy crowd cheering you on. The atmosphere of it all was great.

Of course, beyond that atmosphere was the history. The Kansas Relays and the University of Kansas track and field program has an illustrious past (and present). KU has won a handful of NCAA team championships in the sport (including the women’s last year). They team has also developed several Olympians and world record holders. As a distance runner I was well versed in this history growing up. Glenn Cunningham held the mile record in the 1930s, Wes Santee held it while chasing the 4-minute barrier in the 1950s, and Wichita East high school phenom Jim Ryun set his mark before matriculating to KU in the 1960s. Billy Mills won the 1964 Olympic 10,000m after graduating from KU and later held the 6-mile world record. Al Oerter, another KU alum, won four Olympic gold medals in the discus. They all competed and practiced on that track. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain even competed for the Jayhawk track team.

When I was in college I competed in the 4-x-mile relay at the Kansas Relays. I recorded my career fastest mile time as a split in one of those races. I don’t know if it was the lights (the race was after dark), the crowd, the adrenaline, or just the history, but I’ll never forget that race. I was a pretty mediocre runner throughout my career but I always felt world-class at the Kansas Relays because I knew I was running on the same stretches as my heroes, my feet landing in the same places as theirs.

Saying goodbye to a track with that much history is hard, but the decision is the right one. Almost all major track and field programs now have their own track specific facilities that feature pristine running surfaces, jumping pits, and throwing rings. The nostalgia of Memorial Stadium held KU back in improving these areas. The new improvements will help KU attract top athletes and maintain a high level of success that matches the program’s history.

The sport of track and field has already experienced its decline in popularity. This has been a half-century long process. My own theory blames an increasing move away from team-centered programs towards. It’s rare to find a team that is strong in all facets of the sport — sprinting, jumping, hurdling, throwing, and distance running. Likewise, the sport has increasingly focused on individual marks. As an a former athlete and coach, I admit that these developments have been great for improving performances and developing talent, but as spectator, they make it harder to follow the sport.

In track and field’s heyday the sport centered on weekday duals and weekend meets. Duals required that both team put 2 or 3 individuals in each event. The dual was then scored giving points to each team based on where they placed. Every race mattered. At the end of the dual you had a clear winner and a tidy box-score (like baseball) of the performances for the newspaper. On the weekends, meets operated similarly but with more teams. Winning a meet was a major accomplishment and the goal of many coaches. Fans could follow these results — both in the stands and through newspapers — to measure how well a team was doing.

As I said earlier, the sport has evolved past this. Today some programs focus on training only a handful of event groups. Dual meets rarely exist and team scores aren’t standard at lots of meets. Coaches and athletes are focused on getting certain performances standards to qualify for regional and national meets, not winning team titles. This evolution has been really good for the athletes and has greatly enhanced the quality of the sport. A lot of coaches believe that the old system encouraged over-racing that complicated training schedules making it difficult to achieve peak performances. For example, Wes Santee once remarked that he may have broken the four-minute barrier first, but he was always running 3 or 4 events in meets and never really fresh.

Track and field is a different sport now. And, in a lot of ways, it’s a better sport now, too. The removal of the track from Memorial Stadium at the University of Kansas is a part of the sport’s evolution. It’s actually fairly remarkable that KU kept its track inside of stadium this long. But those of us versed in its history know why they did. That’s why the news this week tugs at the hearts of those of us who are nostalgic for the large crowds of yesteryear, but also excites us as we see KU moving forward to build on its tradition in the new world of track and field.

World Cup Predictions and Personal Reflections

The 2014 FIFA World Cup begins today. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world and one of the most exciting. It’s a truly global event with a fascinating and storied past. Brazil will be at the center of the world for the next few weeks. While most people will be focused on the pitch, there will certainly be coverage of the social, political, and economic conditions of Brazilians. Criticism of FIFA and other international sporting organizations will follow. Protests of corruption and the increasing failures of what some might call “sports diplomacy” are likely.

While the World Cup is significant on a global level, it also carries national significance. Every four years Americans ESPN renews their interest in soccer and columnists wax eloquently on their hopes for the future. Purists will deride the MLS and it’s quality of play, while others point out its increasingly popularity and commercial success in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City and extoll the rising American soccer culture. In the wake of the concussion crisis and concerns over CTE in youth sports, there will undoubtedly be hundreds of stories imaging a future sporting landscape with soccer at the center. Soccer, of course, has been the #1 youth sport in the United States for decades.

The World Cup carries personal significance for me, too. I’m a sports fan and I’ve always enjoyed soccer. I played it briefly in elementary school and continued to pay attention to local teams as I aged. I grew up liking soccer, but never knowing about the world of soccer. I didn’t know about the World Cup. I didn’t know about the EPL, La Liga, or Budesliga. I didn’t become aware of a lot these things until high school and college. Soccer was something I played at recess.

The first vivid World Cup memory that I can recall was the U.S. winning the Women’s World Cup in 1999. Then, the next year the Kansas City Wizards won the MLS Cup. I remember watching the game, annoying my brother by flipping between it and the Kansas City Chiefs game. That’s what being a soccer fan meant to me.

In high school I supported our soccer teams. Many of my cross country and track teammates played soccer in the alternate season. I knew that they were good. They won a couple of state titles and many went on to play in college. But in that moment, I never really got it. I never understood the club scene, where teammates would leave practice to go to soccer practice. I  did know that the “Total Futbol” slogan used by my school’s coach was really a style of play borrowed from the fantastic Dutch teams.

It’s funny now. All those years I considered myself a soccer fan, but I barely even knew what soccer was. My love for the game was born and bred on the playground and coddled by the success of my local teams. It wasn’t until college that I saw the larger picture. My college’s teams were quite good and I became an instant fan. We had rowdy crowds with creative chants and championship banners. Several of our players came from the UK. During my four years, soccer games not football were the place to be.

Captivated by this culture, I enrolled in a History of the World Cup course January of my sophomore year. It was an “Interterm” class between the fall and spring semester. Three weeks of going to one class sandwiched between indoor track practices.  This course (and all interterm courses at my school) wasn’t designed to be rigorous, but rather fun, engaging, and exploratory. One of the goals of the class was to prepare us to be intelligent and engaged fans for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I recall the instructor asking us how many World Cups the United States had won the first day, and several of us had no clue. The class was a mix of the history of soccer and the laws of the game as well as the World Cup. Our main assignments was to give a presentation on a historically significant match for a country we selected. I chose 1966 England and talked about the “phantom” goal, using as a segue to talk about goal-line technology.

That class was the first “sports history” course I ever took. I didn’t realize it then, but it planted a seed. It started me thinking about combining sports and history. I began connecting the dots and discovering how little I really knew. I was a fan, but in a mostly passive and uncritical way. It was easy for me to cheer for my team and my country to win, but I didn’t know the historical contexts and significance of their competitions. I discovered that just as you can often learn more and enjoy watching one player for several minutes rather than following the ball, the same is true for a variety of issues, events, actions, and individuals in sport. The World Cup always serves as a reminder of these things for me, sadly that might be because that the easiest way to enjoy and cope with Team USA.

But this year I’m more excited. In addition to the various national and international stories that I’m interested in, I have a player to watch: Matt Besler. He’s a defenseman on the U.S. National Team, who came up through the MLS. He not only plays for my hometown team, Sporting Kansas City, he also went to my high school. Besler graduated a year after me, but we never knew each other well. I’m excited to watch him for several reasons, but probably most of all is the fact that he represents a sense of place for me. He’s a symbol of my high school, my hometown, and my country. I often wonder why I never got into European soccer during and after college, and I think it’s because I only follow sports team that have a personal connection. There’s a certain provincialism required to be a sports fan, and for me it requires personal connections. I’ll always be a booster of my home town and the colleges I attended. That’s how I’m wired. So while as an American, I’ve always had a connection to team USA , this year it’s even stronger. I’m excited to watch Besler play and continue to build his successful career on the world’s biggest stage.