Sunday, February 21, 2010

The oversized track controversy

I blame the NCAA. And football. In an era where track & field needs to be simpler, not more complex, in order to attract fan interest, things are getting just too complicated.

Case in point, raised by Don Passenger: now that we have a 300-meter track in Allendale, do we need to reconsider the topic of “legal record tracks”?

It’s not a simple question by any means. For a lot of folks in the Grand Rapids area, it’s a no-brainer. However I suspect few there cared about the issue at all more than two years ago, when the only oversized track marks that came up were from Detroit-area track clubs travelling to Ohio and Kentucky. (Incidentally, in all those years, with all those great oversized marks coming from Detroit kids [1:52.21 by Isaiah Ward or even Stan Vinson’s 47.2y in 1971—which would have been a national record at the time], I never heard a complaint from any of the coaches about the marks not being called records).

However, times change. To make sense of the arguments involved, one must step back and understand the history and tradition involved. Here goes. Back in the old days—1960s and earlier, the standard indoor track in North America was usually a board affair that was 10 or 11 laps per mile. A few fieldhouses, like Jenison in East Lansing and Yost (yes!) in Ann Arbor, featured 220y tracks. Indoor track was basically unknown in Europe; it was an American sport.

Back then, indoor record keeping was mostly left to track writers, such as the ones at Track & Field News. For years, they attempted to keep records based on a confusing array of track sizes: 11-laps, 10-laps, 8-laps, etc. That eventually disappeared because it was just too confusing and convoluted. Fans didn’t care. So all the records were lumped together.

As far as I know, the first oversized track was built at the University of Illinois around 1970. Yes, it was notably faster. Since it was the only one of its kind, the track world determined that it was “oversized” and would not count for lap records. Obviously, marks set there in the dash and the hurdles would be acceptable. (Ironic sidenote: the new Illinois track is 200m.)

That was the state of indoor track when I ran my first indoor race in 1977, a two-mile run at the AFL-CIO meet in Cobo Hall, on an 11-lap to the mile banked wooden track that bounced when athletes ran on it. I clocked 11-minutes or so, but who knows. I’m sure I lost count of the laps. I got dizzy running on it, and was scared to death that if I accidentally stepped off, I would snap my ankle. That night, I saw a kid running a 440 (I think) in an outer lane fly off the high part of the curve. Medical attention was needed! Running on the boards was an art form unknown to our current athletes—it took a special combination of agility and fearlessness. In that world, Stan Vinson, one of the all-time greats from Chadsey High and Eastern Michigan, had godlike powers.

What’s changed
Three things: the NCAA, football, and Europe.
The NCAA has long used time-based qualifying for their Division I Indoor Championships. It didn’t take coaches long to figure out they could get faster times on a big track than on a small one. So a few other schools constructed giant tracks (Northern Arizona, Notre Dame, Washington, Kentucky, etc.). They made money off them because so many college coaches were willing to fly kids in from across the country to get their qualifying marks. The coaches who had budget/travel constraints pushed for adjusted qualifying standards, so that they would still have a chance to qualify their kids from a 200-m track, which is the standard for 95% of colleges. However, the qualifying standard adjustments the NCAA still uses remain too weak, and still give too much of an advantage to the big tracks. The proof: colleges are still flocking to those meets.

Most of the giant tracks have been constructed around indoor football practice facilities. In American colleges, football is the tail that wags the dog, so I don’t think the trend to pour more taxpayer money into the gridiron is going to change anytime soon (except perhaps in Michigan, see below). Combine this with college track coaches wanting to have their own giant track so that they can qualify without travelling while raking in money from visiting schools, and you may see more giant tracks being built.

(However—and this is to respond to Don’s contention that the Allendale track is now the “standard” for the state of Michigan—in our state we have between six and ten 200m tracks, so I would argue that remains our standard. And will we really see more colleges in Michigan building giant tracks? Not anytime soon, I bet, given our moribund economy, and the fact that the state is going to have to cut back even more on spending for the public universities.)

Finally, a quick look at Europe. In the 1980s, the Europeans started getting into indoor track in a big way, and so did the IAAF, with the creation of the World Indoor Championships, first held in Indianapolis in 1987. As far as I know, there are no giant tracks in Europe (for a time, there was a big one in the former East Germany, but I believe it is no longer used/in existence). The standard in Europe is the ultra-fast 200m banked synthetic track—the same kind used in New York, Boston, Fayetteville, etc. All world-class invitationals are held on these ovals now. The IAAF now has official indoor world records—modeling their guidelines on the ones that USATF uses—that is, the maximum circumference track acceptable for records is 220y. Oversized marks are not recognized. I don’t see that international rule changing in our time. Building oversized tracks is strictly an American phenomenon.

What’s fair in records
The keeping of state records (or any kind of records) is merely because of a desire to compare marks—we all want to know what was the best ever. And we try to base records on the concept of fairness and standardization, otherwise there’s no point. For instance, because excessive tailwind makes people run faster, sometimes dramatically so, and 95% of races are run with winds less than 2.0mps, then that became the standard for allowable wind. You have to apply rules to records, otherwise you end up with (bad) craziness.

We also base records on tradition. Consider this—we know that bigger tracks are faster. So why not build your next outdoor track to be 500m? Too tough to do staggers, so maybe 800m would be better? Of course, you wouldn’t because that’s not the sport’s tradition (or rules). Maybe this is a little too ad absurdum, but ever consider that your team would score more touchdowns if your football field were only 50 yards long?

There’s a point there, even if silly. However, in indoor track, the cat is already out of the bag. We have 300m tracks. Now we have to deal with them.

I am just about convinced that in the next Michigan Track Yearbook, I need to add a “300m track records” list. Wouldn’t take much more than a feather to push me in that direction, even though I see having two sets of state records as something that will only confuse fans and athletes.

However, I find that I would be terribly troubled if someone were to say “throw out all restrictions and comments on track size, treat everyone equally!” That is because everyone would not be treated equally in such a case. Most of the state’s tracks would be at a disadvantage in the qualifying game, and most of the state’s athletes would be at a disadvantage in the recognition game. More and more athletes would flock to Allendale; which would be great for Grand Valley’s finances, but no one else’s.

If more 300m tracks are built on the other side of the state, then I would gladly reconsider. Just as I would if the IAAF and USATF change their record policies.

Today, we have just one 300m track in Michigan. Yes, the kids that run on it deserve recognition. I am definitely open to suggestions.

PS--It’s clear that MITS needs to adopt a dual set of qualifying standards for lap races. If the directors of the meets at U-M, MSU, CMU and Macomb aren’t already complaining about this, they should be. The current set-up is not fair to anyone.

PPS—No matter what the consensus here, the fact is that any potential world, American, and national high school records set on a 300m track are not eligible for record status, and powers much bigger than me and Michtrack determine that.

PPPS—the GaREAT facility in Northeast Ohio is now open for business, aggressively marketing their own 300m supertrack. I couldn’t help but groan when I saw they are sponsoring their own “national championships” in March in direct competition to the other two national high school indoor championships. As if we needed three national championships, let alone two! Please don’t patronize them. If you really want to win a cheap national title, just invite a few friends and have your own national championships in your gymnasium.

Baisden stuns with oversized 53.99

Now we can put a bigger exclamation mark on my statement yesterday that Kendall Baisden is ready to take down some records. At yesterday's Rubber City Invitational in Akron, Baisden cruised around the monster 300m track in a blazing 53.99 for 400m. Put her on a regulation track, and she's surely ready to topple Jessica Jones' 54.79 state record. Baisden topped runner-up Dynasty McGee by 3.61 seconds, and also won the 60 with a state-leading 7.53.

It's a pity that Michigan athletes have to wait until Nationals to have access to a state-of-the-art 200m track such as the ones used in Boston and New York. On any size track, however, Baisden is only behind five other Michigan HS alumni, and two of them were Olympians.

Unfortunately, Dynasty McGee did not contest the jumps in Akron. It would have been great to see her confirm her Saginaw marks. Her sister China triple jumped, but fell more than four feet short of her Saginaw distance.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Records Falling Indoors

Shana Flanary, competing for Monroe this year, started the record ball rolling in January by adding two feet to her state record in the 20lb weight throw (45-7.5). Ten days later she smashed it again, reaching 48-4.5 at Jenison Fieldhouse in East Lansing.

Then Dynasty McGee shocked at last Wednesday's meet at Saginaw Valley, hitting a 19-8 in the long jump that surpasses Trinette Johnson's 21-year-old record of 19-6.5. She came back in the triple jump and broke her own best of 37-4 with a 39-1. In the process, the junior improved her own PRs by eyebrow-raising margins (old bests 18-1 and 37-4). The fields at the Saginaw meet were small: five girls in the long jump and only two, the McGee sisters, in the triple. To be honest, I'll be hoping she betters the marks again at the state finals to eliminate any questions.

The record threat is certainly not over yet. Watch for possible marks from Sarah Birkmeier, who's at 12-6 now, just under her own PV record of 12-8. Bridgette Owens-Mitchell just cranked an 8.49 in the hurdles at Kentucky, second only in state history to the 8.46 by now-world class Candice Davis. Megan Goethals has hit 10:25.66 for 3200 on an oversized (non-record) track. The state 2M best is 10:22.96 for the full yard distance. Youngster Kendall Baisden might have a chance at the 200/400 bests of 23.90 and 54.79.

On the guys side, watch for Bedford's Nick Kaiser. He just ran an oversized 1:53.17 in Kentucky. The state record on a legal track is 1:52.80. And if Omar Kaddurah and Mike Atchoo keep improving, look for them to threaten the 1600 best of 4:09.0. I also wouldn't count out Max Babits, who is at 16-2 in the vault now (the record is 16-10.25).

If you want to have all the facts at your fingertips, make sure you get the 2010 Michigan Track Yearbook. Order it online, or, if my shipment gets here in time, you can pick one up at the state indoor. To order, click this link!