Swimming vs. Track: NBC Sports insists both are popular, only swimming airing prime time.
July 16, 2008 4:00 AM
Al Bello/Getty Images
In a shift of historic proportions, NBC is hitching its ratings star to Michael Phelps and his bid for history next month in Beijing.
David J. Phillip/Associated Press
The uncertainty of Tyson Gay's hamstring won't help track and field's case.
By Howard Fendrich The Associated Press
From the days of ancient Greece, through the days of Jesse Owens, Bruce Jenner and Carl Lewis, track and field held pride of place at the Olympics -- and produced many of the biggest stars. That was then.
Doping cases have claimed some of track and field's most prominent names, a portion of its popularity and, in the eyes of some, its legitimacy. As in: When someone does the very thing we hope for -- produces a superhuman performance by running faster or jumping higher or throwing farther than anyone ever has -- is it real? Can we believe what we see?
Track and field is slouching toward Beijing. To climb back on its pedestal, the sport needs the world to pay attention to the compelling story lines at these Summer Games, highlighted by what could be the greatest men's 100-meter race in history and a Chinese megastar named Liu Xiang.
• When: Aug. 8-24.
• Where: Beijing.
• TV: NBC will offer about 1,200 hours of coverage across the network and cable stations USA, MSNBC, CNBC and Oxygen. Spanish-language coverage will be provided by Telemundo. You also can watch on nbcolympics.com.
"You definitely can get fed up with a sport -- so many scandals or whatever. But I think that there are clean athletes out here just trying to put the performances back up there," said Allyson Felix, an American sprinter who could win gold medals in the 200 meters along with two relays.
Felix and her competitors are all too aware that so many of the headlines generated by track athletes in recent years have been negative: Marion Jones Admits Doping. Marion Jones Heads to Jail. And so on.
Filling the void, at least in the United States, are swimming, led by Michael Phelps, and gymnastics, led by Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. TV exposure tells the story. With the recent U.S. track trials and the swimming trials running concurrently, NBC chose to place Bob Costas, the face of its Olympics coverage, by the pool in Omaha, Neb., rather than trackside in Eugene, Ore.
That pecking order will be evident in China, too. During the Aug. 8-24 Olympics, swimming and gymnastics will be broadcast as they happen in prime time in the United States, even though that meant switching the start times to morning in Beijing. Track and field will be shown in the evening, but on tape -- the suspense of the results gone. The network insists track hasn't lost its luster.
"For an American audience, in no particular order, there's gymnastics, swimming, track and field, diving and beach volleyball," NBC executive vice president David Neal said. "Those are sort of the top tier, and [track is] solidly in that top tier."
But Tyson Gay, one of three sprinters expected to threaten the 100 world record in Beijing, notices that his sport has been nudged to the side.
"What can bring it back is a lot of guys like myself stepping out and talking about being drug-free and running fast times and showing everyone that you can do it natural," said Gay, whose soft-spoken nature is quite a contrast to bombastic sprinters of the past.
It hardly helps, though, that Gay and some of the other athletes who are the closest things to household names in the United States won't be getting full exposure in China.
He ran the 100 in a wind-aided 9.68 seconds at the trials June 29 -- the best time recorded, under any conditions -- but he crumpled with a hamstring injury in 200 qualifying six days later, so he won't compete in the longer race at the Olympics. As it is, there are lingering questions about how fit he'll be.
Felix failed to make the U.S. team in the 100. Eight-time U.S. javelin champion and national record holder Breaux Greer was placed on the team after failing to qualify at the trials.
All that said, there are plenty of highlights waiting to happen. Start with the race to be the world's fastest man. If the 100 meters plays out as expected, the final will include Gay and Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell -- all of whom have run legal times of 9.77 seconds or lower. Powell held the world record of 9.74 until Bolt broke it with a breathtaking 9.72 in May.
There's more to look forward to at the Bird's Nest, the 91,000-capacity National Stadium, and no one will draw attention from the locals the way Liu will. He is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, making him China's best shot for a gold medal on the track. But his world record was snatched away by Cuba's Dayron Robles in June, setting up a showdown.
Other performers to watch include Jeremy Wariner, another Olympic and world champion, whose publicly stated goal is to break Michael Johnson's record in the 400 meters. The catch: Wariner was beaten by LaShawn Merritt twice this year, including at the trials.
There are inspirational stories. Oscar Pistorius is a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa who runs on prosthetic blades and is trying to log an Olympic-qualifying time. Lopez Lomong, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" -- young refugees of the civil war in that country who made it to the United States -- will represent his new home in the 1,500.
So here, then, is the good news for the sport, news that everyone loves to point out whenever they get the chance: There hasn't been bad news in quite some time. No truly prominent track athlete from any country failed a drug test this year. No one came up positive at the sport's 2007 world championships.
Keeping clean. It's clearly Step 1 in track's comeback. Here's the rest of the formula: stirring stories, and a world record or two.