New athletics league could be gem for U.S.

March 3, 2009

ATHLETICS/For years even the most elite American track and field athletes needed to fly to Europe to compete in the big leagues of athletics.

That all changed Monday with the announcement that well-established meetings in New York City and Eugene, Oregon, will become a part of the IAAF Diamond League, a new 12-to-15 meet premier global series to be launched in 2010.

At first glance, that should mean more opportunities for U.S. athletes at home and an improved chance for American spectators to see the world’s best in venues other than on their television set.

Track and field will remain a difficult sell in the U.S., especially in these strained financial times yet, the Diamond League should give the sport new hope at the professional level in America.

As USA Track and Field (USATF) chief executive Doug Logan told Reuters, “It’s another step in the journey we are taking to try and re-establish the sport as a big-time sport here. It gives us an opportunity to showcase the greatest team in the world on our domestic shores and at a high level of competition.”

The key to success of the series, Logan and others said, would be to sign the world’s elite athletes to a central contract with the Diamond League and to line up as many head-to-head showdowns as possible.

Seeing 100 metres world record holder Usain Bolt, former holder Asafa Powell and American champion Tyson Gay in the same meet would be a tremendous selling point to a sport in search of positives.

It will not happen often but even once outside a world championship or Olympics would be more frequent than occurred in 2008.

More likely spectators will see a combination of the three in the seven meets of the series that will feature the 100 metres with rivalries in other events, perhaps Russian world pole vault record holder Yelena Isinbayeva versus U.S. holder Jenn Stuczynski, being the major selling point in other meetings.

Organisers of the two meets were naturally pleased pleased with their inclusion in the league.

“It’s like (being) one of the majors in golf or supreme meets in tennis,” Tom Jordan, meet director for Eugene’s Prefontaine Classic, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“This bold venture marks a new era for one-day meetings, and the Prefontaine Classic is delighted to be a part,” he added, noting the format will afford his event the opportunity to bring some top athletes in the sport who have not previously competed in Eugene.

New York grand prix meet director Mark Wetmore told a teleconference, “It is hard to express how excited we are.

“This is something we have worked toward for a number of years,” said Wetmore, whose competition last year featured a highly anticipated 100 metres showdown between Jamaican Bolt and Gay that resulted in a 100 metres world record by Bolt, who later won triple gold in Beijing with more record-breaking performances.

Wetmore described the league’s U.S. presence as a win-win situation for athletes, their agents and USATF, the sport’s U.S. governing body.

“The athletes are going to be able to be a part of something that financially will put them in a much better situation. They will never have to leave the United States before the (U.S.) championships,” he said.

Also, Wetmore said: “It’s a huge asset to have Prefontaine as a part of this league.”

With their meets scheduled in close proximity, likely in late May or early June, “we will be able to bring a lot of real superstars of the sport who have not been able to come to the U.S. for whatever reason.”

Logan would like to see the two enhanced meetings and their expanded international flavor be building blocks to the U.S. hosting the ultimate in track meets, the world championships.

“It is a desire and a goal of mine, and what we are trying to do, is to make that a reality prior to 2016,” he said.

Finding a suitable stadium (there are none at present) and the cash to finance it are stumbling blocks. So are the continued – but less frequent – positive doping results that still plague the sport, grab the most headlines and turn off potential sponsors and spectators.

But the Diamond League, if presented in an exciting format, should offer track and field a chance to establish an improved toehold in the multitude of sporting opportunites now available to U.S. fans.

It may never bring back the good old days where track and field was a major U.S. player, but it could be a diamond in the rough for a sport in need of a new direction.

PHOTO:¬†Usain Bolt (C) of Jamaica celebrates setting what was then a world record in the men’s 100 metres race next to Tyson Gay (L) of the U.S. and Darvis Patton of the U.S. at the Reebok Grand Prix athletics meet in New York, May 31, 2008. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

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