Sometimes I think the best part of spring in South Dakota is when track and field gets underway.
The other day the junior-high granddaughter brought home a notice of the pre-season meeting for the school track program, and the news started my heart to pumping a little faster. Basketball is a fine sport, football is OK and baseball can be exciting now and then for a couple of innings of a West Coast game late in a night when a guy can’t sleep. But track and field? That’s a sport worth watching.
I’ve always thought that, from as far back as I can remember. At least from as far back as when I first started reading about the Rev. Bob Richards, an Olympics pole vaulting champion from the United States. I suppose I was about 8 or 9 then and he’d already won the gold medal in the 1952 games. They called him the “Vaulting Vicar’’ in one story, at least, and he was as clean-cut, humble and handsome as I grew up believing all of our American sports heroes could be. When Wheaties made him the first athlete to appear on the front cover, well, that settled things for me. Many athletes had been pictured on Wheaties boxes, but not spread across the front cover. That made the guy extra special.
After we got our first television, I could follow the summer Olympics a little bit. The news programs once in awhile showed a clip from the games, and they did try to have a few replays show on weekends. While I liked Bob Richards at first, my focus gradually turned to middle-distance runners, especially the ones from Australia and New Zealand, superstars like Herb Elliot and Peter Snell. In high school, when the coach began to direct my middling talent toward the 440-yard dash, I switched my attention to the 400-meter runners. My first real favorite was Otis Davis, gold medalist and record setter at the 1960 games in Rome.
One of the things I really like about track and field is that it’s a no-excuses sport. Maybe in the relays a guy could blame a poor performance on his teammates, but that would be incredibly bad form. The point of having four runners compete together in, say, a mile relay, is to have each runner to the best they can to take the baton from the runner before them and deliver it to the runner after them. Everyone in the stands can see who is running well, who is losing ground, who is moving up.
In the individual events it’s even more obvious how well an individual performs. Everyone starts in the same place and finishes in the same place. The one who breaks the tape runs the fastest, no question. I suppose a runner could finish third or seventh or whatever and say, “Well, but the cinders were loose on the inside lane around the turn. I couldn’t get the traction the runners in the outside lanes got.’’ I don’t think even the runner who would say that would, deep down, believe it. We know who is quickest.
People who follow my track stories know I used to run the 440 against a Mitchell guy named Doug Metcalf. I ran as fast as I could, every time. He ran faster every time. That’s about as pure as it gets in sports competition. He ran faster. Bob Richards vaulted higher than other competitors in two straight Olympics. Bob Hayes outran everyone else in the 100 meters. Bob Beamon long-jumped farther than his competitors in Mexico City in 1968. And Billy Mills kicked away from a field of the best 10,000-meter runners in the world to win gold in 1964.
I like the certainty. I also like that spectators at track meets rarely shout anything negative at competitors. They cheer for the winners, and they cheer on the rest of the field. They appreciate effort, whether it results in a gold medal or not.
I always think of track when I heard the Tom T. Hall lyrics, “I love winners when they cry, losers when they try.’’ And I love track.