A Day at the (Human) Races

Today’s slide show: Gateshead

The Gateshead Stadium

GATESHEAD, England; June 27, 2004—Of all sports confined to niche status in the United States, track and field is the most baffling. After all, we have no soccer or cricket tradition, but we’ve dominated several track events since the last time the Olympics were held in Greece in 1896. Sure, the occasional superstar like Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson breaks through, but only after dominant Olympic performances. Even the brightest lights perform in shadow for three years and 11 months, their homeland exposure confined to agate type and desultory late-night cable broadcasts.

Here in England, the great runners, throwers, and jumpers are much thinner on the ground than in the United States, but even average athletes are granted considerably more coverage than top American stars receive at home. I’ve come to the far northeast of the country, near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, to see the British Grand Prix, and the national press is in a quiver over the “form” of national heroes like Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes. After all, potential Olympic glory is only a few weeks away. Our top athletes have Wheaties boxes to shoot for—British gold medalists might get an audience with the queen.

Gateshead Stadium, where the Grand Prix is held, is no shrine to the sport, like Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., or Bislett Stadium in Oslo, Norway. It calls to mind a Division 1-AA football stadium. There are dozens of high schools in my home state of Georgia that wouldn’t deign to play a game here. The stadium holds about 8,000 fans. By contrast, Newcastle United and Sunderland, the area’s top soccer teams, play in relative palaces (Sunderland’s home is called, without a shred of irony, the Stadium of Light). But this track is a popular stop for the athletes, mainly because of the loud and well-informed crowd. Hundreds of screaming kids are in attendance, as well as athletics “anoraks” (what we would call stats geeks), who dutifully jot down each lap time and jump length in the score sheet included with the meet program.

Track meets, with their concurrent action, are notoriously hard to follow from the stands, and the sheer volume of digital readouts and colorful tights can lead the spectator to blissfully tune out the happenings below. The Brits have managed to jazz things up a touch. Tuxedoed emcees scurry about the track, introducing events, pointing out the top competitors, and interviewing them afterward. While paling in contrast to the sound and light shows at American arenas, there is a bit of electronic goosing. Each new event comes with a booming music sting, and throwing contests like javelin and shot put are accompanied by missilelike whirring and impact sound effects. After a particularly long toss, you half-expect, “You sank my battleship!” to ring out over the public address.

This is a middle-drawer “athletics meeting”—a mix of top pros and British filler. By far the biggest name here is Marion Jones, Sydney Olympics superstar turned suspected drug cheat, as alleged dopers are called here (the English, so circumspect in personal dialogue, are wonderful at simple declaratives like that). She is front and center in the BALCO Labs controversy currently overwhelming U.S. track and field. This has more to do with her choice of male companions (first, husband C.J. Hunter, booted from Sydney for doping, now boyfriend Tim Montgomery, newly banned from competition as well) than proof of her drug use. With the Olympic Trials so near, this is quite a ways to travel for competition, and the scent of desperation to avoid the scandal trails Jones around the track. The English are nothing if not polite, and she receives a warm reception, except for the gent whose shout pierces the crowd—”I’ve got your piss bottle ready for you, Marion!” Even Jones laughs at that.

Clearly, her performance has been affected by the drama (cynics would suggest a sudden decrease in drug intake). She recently finished fifth in her specialty, the 100-meter dash, at a meet in Oregon, and here she takes a lackluster second in the long jump, helped mightily by a spree of fouls by the rest of the field. A large group of reporters gather afterward to query her, but the Divine Miss M decides she has faced enough questioning of late and swiftly leaves the stadium, flanked by a phalanx of burly handlers.

The meet has started late, 3:30 in the afternoon, and Northumbria is hardly a balmy region, even in summer. But there are some choice moments for those who stay past dinnertime. For the second straight year at Gateshead, Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva sets a new women’s world record. If any event can break through the fog and generate some interest in the United States, women’s pole vault is surely it. The athletes are lean and robust without the sometimes-grotesque overmusculature of the steroid-riddled events. Then there are the extreme sports overtones—pole vaulting could leap over to the X Games without missing a beat.

Actually, women’s pole vault could break away from the traditional track meet setting and be packaged (and, more important, broadcast) as a stand-alone event. Two hours of “hot chicks flying through the air,” as Sydney gold medalist Stacy Dragila describes her trade, would surely capture the attention of the Saturday afternoon viewing crowd.

The English have a long tradition of producing great distance runners, and the latest is Paula Radcliffe. World record holder in the marathon, she may also run the 10,000 meters in Athens. The organizers have laid on a 10k just for her and slated it for the final event of the program. Most of the crowd braves a chill wind to watch her run alone for most of the race, lapping the rest of the field. Like the famed Czech distance runner Emil Zatopek, her face twists in agony even when she’s running well, and her stride has a droop to starboard so that she threatens to punch herself in the chin with every step. But Radcliffe cruises to a track record, and her final laps have a classic English sporting feel—a small but knowledgeable crowd chanting and clapping in an unassuming stadium under inclement conditions and a slate-gray sky. I close my eyes and imagine it’s 1954 and that it’s Roger Bannister out there, breaking the tape in record, and historic, time …