Stories Of Americans Passionately At Play

"Sport, at its best, at its most human, is able to inspire an innocence and joy that is unique to each of us."
~ Richard Corman ~

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Inside Scoop: Track & Field’s Next Big Thing

In April of 2010, author Tim Forbes embarked on a one-year “sports walkabout” that took him across the country to 100 sporting events involving 50 completely different sports. Why? Well, it’s complicated. His journey and ultimate discoveries about the true value of sports were published in the book “It’s Game Time Somewhere” (Bascom Hill Publishing, 2013).

Pop quiz. How many separate events make up a heptathlon competition?

If you answered seven, you are either a Greek scholar, or you were one of the 75 or so fans that joined me at Edwards Stadium on the campus of Cal-Berkeley last Sunday to witness the staging of the Pac-10’s Heptathlon and Decathlon Championships. This event is actually part of the overall Pac-10 Track & Field Championships, but since its 17 different activities tend to hog an entire facility, the best overall athletes at each participating school get this—their own weekend in advance of the main attraction to showcase their stuff.

Except, ummm, there was nobody there to be show-cased to.

To be fair, the morning’s intermittent rain and chilly wind may have kept some people away. But more likely, the sparse crowd was due to a heavy under-the-radar-screen factor. This competition is so outside the mainstream of attention, its name was misspelled on the Pac-10’s official website. Yes, we’re talking about the one and only “Pac-10 Multi-Evnets Championship.” Right up my alley.

From the generous selection of seats available, I chose a vantage point that gave me both a great overview of the action spread out before me, and–due to the presence of a sizable overhang—kept me warm and dry. Through an excellent P.A. system a golden-throated announcer provided not only play-by-play, but comprehensive background color commentary. Instead of simply, “That throw was 32.17 meters,” I got, “That throw was 32.17 meters, but earlier she had a better toss of 34.24 meters, so she’s still in the running.” Scoreboards, both electronic and manual were consistently updated. And did I mention the elbow room? All for the tidy price of $0. I could get used to this.

Pac10Combineds~Stadium2A word here about Edwards Stadium. Well, two words. “Imposing” is the first. This is a hulking concrete structure built in the Post-War era. No, not that war…no, before that one…keep going …yup, the Post-World War One era. At the time of its opening in 1932, it was the only stadium in the world built specifically and solely for track and field use. A $3.5 million renovation in 2000 created Goldman Field inside the environs, and restored the facility to its proper place in track and field lexicon. Which brings me to the second word: “Iconic.”

Twelve world records have been set in Edwards. Along with 26 American records. And 24 collegiate records. In 1940, the 15’ barrier was cracked in the pole vault for the first time. The legendary Jim Ryun ran a 3:51.3 mile here in 1977. On a cinder track. This is pretty heady stuff, and you can feel an almost spectral sense of history as you sit in the stands. And just as I was thinking that things couldn’t possibly get any better…the sun came out.

Track and field events are refreshingly simple. If you run the fastest, jump the highest, or throw the farthest, you win (assuming that you aren’t throwing while others are jumping or running, that is). For the most part there aren’t any arcane rules and regulations that you need to become familiar with. The one exception to this hotbed of simplicity is, of course, these Combineds—as those of us recently in the know refer to the women’s heptathlon and the men’s decathlon.

Granted, the overall object here is pretty straightforward. You earn points in each separate competition, and eventually those points add up to something of great value. It’s kind of like track and field’s version of a frequent flyer program. Naturally, the goal is to aggregate more overall points than anyone else. I can get on board with that. But, ummm, how many points do you earn for finishing, say, second in the shot put? Or sixth in the high jump? While it can be fairly easy to figure out who’s winning any given event and what other competitors need to do to surpass them, it’s much harder to identify who is currently winning on an overall basis. Which can be a drama buzzkill.

Fortunately, I had The Voice booming out on a regular basis, telling me what I needed to know. And there was that scoreboard that was fairly constantly updated with the total overall standings. I didn’t even have to think! I could just bask in the newly-arrived sunshine and watch with admiration as superbly conditioned men and women did a host of things better than I could ever do any single athletic thing with regularity. Does spectating get any better than this? I wondered rhetorically.

Then of course I got greedy.

I wanted to get closer to the action. And I noticed that there were some people down on the field that didn’t look all that much like competitors, coaches, or officials. They were just milling about one end of the infield, maintaining a respectful distance from the competition. I wanted to mill as well. But I didn’t want to subject friends and family to repeated SportsCenter footage of me being tased. And I’ve always looked bad in horizontal stripes. But after weighing the odds, I decided to put a toe in the water and use the time-tested, “but everybody else is doing it” defense if needed.

I carefully plotted my next move.

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