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How to Fix Track and Field

Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell have some ideas on how to make track and field more spectator-friendly

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Even with Usain Bolt in the races, Rio’s track-and-field events often featured rows and rows of empty seats. What’s worse, it feels like interest in the sport as a whole is declining. But on the latest Bill Simmons Podcast, Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell have some ideas to make track and field more spectator-friendly and renew interest in the discipline that awards more medals than any other in the Olympics.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Bill Simmons: It feels like swimming and gymnastics have surpassed track and field in America from a human interest, bar-conversation, things-I-talk-about-with-my-family standpoint. That was the opposite of the way it was when I was growing up — I always felt that track and field was more important. … What’s changed? Do you feel like it’s changed, or am I crazy?

Malcolm Gladwell: You’re not crazy. Anyone who cares about track and field worries that its fansport in the U.S. is dying. Part of it is that the U.S. dominance — you just look at the sprints — the U.S., it used to be routine that American athletes would win the 100, the 200, and the 400. This year, on the men’s and women’s side, you have Jamaicans winning, you’ve got a South African winning the 400 [in the men’s race], so you have a real dilution in American hegemony in the sport, and that might be part of it, but also the sport does a terrible job of marketing itself.

It’s unbelievable how dumb the people running the sport are. They go out of their way to make it as boring as possible. In the Rio games, the track events, the stands were half full for most of the events, if that. It’s unbelievable that you would gather the best athletes in the world together for this extraordinary track meet and no one shows up.

Let fans watch the races from the infield.

M.G.: One of my ideas for a real simple fix is that they let the people into the infield, so that when you’re running the race, you’re running through a wall of spectators. So at the Olympics, for the sprints, imagine if they put temporary stands, bleachers, on the infield facing the home stretch. So, when Bolt’s running the 100-meter final, there are thousands of people right there on the track screaming and yelling. That’s an experience that anybody would show up for.

That makes it smaller and more intimate. So you give up some total number of spectators, but all of a sudden, you can communicate the emotional power of the sport. It’s an intimate sport. You’ve got to see runners up close to appreciate what they’re doing. It’s not like soccer or football where you want the big perspective. Stuff like that, I don’t understand why they’re not trying to fix it.

Put some of the events in a smaller stadium.

B.S.: I went in 2012. I was so excited to be in London for the track and field. I had been waiting my whole life to see track and field in person and see the high jump and the long jump and all of these different things. And I never realized until I was there … it’s a shitshow. If you’re in the wrong seats, it’s a giant football stadium. It’s 80,000 seats and I don’t care how good your seats are, you might be on the opposite side of where the high jump is and you have no idea what’s happening. You can’t see it. Can’t see the long jump, you have no idea how far the guys go and as you were talking, I was thinking, "Couldn’t they just have the high jump, the long jump, and the pole vault in their own kind of contained mini, little …"

M.G.: In the tennis stadium.

B.S.: Yeah, like a tennis stadium. That would be great.

So how big would that stadium be for, let’s say, high jump, long jump, pole vault, triple jump, that’s it. Couldn’t that be like a 2,000-seat stadium?

M.G.: Yeah. I think you could stuff all of that into one of those midsize tennis stadiums. You just have to maybe rearrange some seats, but the scale works there.

Experiment with the events.

M.G.: Also, I don’t understand why they never experiment. So think about the jumps. I don’t understand why two jumpers don’t jump in the long jump at the same time.

Say you have two people left in a competition. Why not experiment and see what happens when you have them both [jump]? You have a gun, you go, "Ready, set, go," and they both jump, and so you can tell instantly who jumped further. Maybe that’s a bad idea, but I don’t understand why someone doesn’t at least try it. Maybe that makes the long jump way more compelling.