The track & field dual meet
Last weekend Croatia hosted the inaugural IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup. It was a competition between four teams – the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. Each team had two entries per event (except the 1500, 3000, 3000 Steeplechase, and 5000 where each team got three entries) with no more than one athlete from a country. In individual events, eight points were awarded for first place, seven points for second place on down to one point for eighth place. In the relays, it was fifteen points for first place, eleven points for second place, seven points for third place, and three points for fourth place. Points were combined for men and women, with a single team emerging as the Continental Cup Champion. In the end, Team Europe edged out the Americas for the win, 429-419.5, with Africa in third with 291 points, and Asia-Pacific in fourth with 286.5 points.
It was nice to see a meet with a team aspect and team scoring. The $2.9 million in prize money insured that the top athletes were there to compete for their team. But the way the teams were made presented the problem that athletes often had no real allegiance to their team. Athletes think of themselves as being from a particular country and usually have national allegiance, not a continental allegiance. Also, putting athletes onto teams based on continents created teammates out of some athletes who are normally rivals. For example, Nancy Langat (Kenya) and Geleta Burka (Ethiopia) are bitter rivals in the women’s 1500 meters but they were supposed teammates at this meet. Neither athlete was hoping for a 1-2 finish in their race. It was also somewhat strange to see sprint rivals, Jamaica and the United States of America, teaming up in the relay events together. That being said, David Oliver, one of Team America’s team captains, found himself being very team oriented. He cheered on his teammates and talked to and supported athletes from events that he does not normally follow.
A meet that really gets the passions of a country and its citizens going is a dual meet between rival countries. That’s the case at the Finland vs. Sweden track & field dual meet. This meet, called “Finnkampen” by the Swedes, has been taking place annually since 1925. Team scoring is separate for the men and the women at this meet and, in addition to the elite athletes, the meet also hosts a competition between junior athletes from the rival nations. The 2010 meet, held in Helsinki, Finland drew over 54,000 spectators for the two days of competition. Finland was victorious in the men’s competition and both junior competitions, with the Swedes winning the women’s competition. How important is this meet to the athletes? Three Finish javelin throwers arrived at the meet after competing in the Brussels Diamond League meet the day before, just four hours before their dual meet competition began. They went to a lot of trouble to be able to throw at this dual meet. They also swept the javelin for Finland!
A dual meet between rival countries can stir up a lot of interest. The USA took on the USSR in a dual meet, that was held almost every non-Olympic year between 1958 and 1985. The dual meet in 1962 took place at Stanford Stadium and drew a crowd of 72,500 on day one and 81,000 on day two. At the time, It was the largest two day crowd to ever witness a non-Olympic track & field meet. A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner called it the “greatest track (& field) meet of all-time.” Two world records were set: American Harold Connolly (who passed away on August 18) threw the hammer 231 feet, 10 inches and Soviet Valery Brumel cleared seven feet, five inches in the high jump. Among the star athletes from the USA who competed at this meet were, Wilma Rudolph, Al Oerter, Ralph Boston, and future football stars Bob Hayes and Paul Warfield. The final score had the USA winning the men’s competition, 128-107, and the USSR winning the women’s competition, 66-41.
The sport of track & field, at least in the United States, could use more dual meets. A dual meet between rivals like the USA and USSR, with easy to follow team scoring and some political intrigue, has the potential to win over the casual sports fan. People get excited to see a battle between two rivals. Most people may not know the difference between a good time and a mediocre time in the 800 meters, but everyone can certainly follow who beat whom in a head-to-head competition.
At the high school level the dual meet is the main type of competition. Star athletes compete at Arcadia and Mt. Sac, but for all the other high school athletes, the dual meet is the meet to get pumped up for. One of my best coaching memories is from a dual meet in 2002 when Sacred Heart Cathedral ended a long drought of losing dual meets by beating Mitty in dramatic fashion – winning the last event, the 4X400 relay.
In college, although most of the season emphasis is on conference, regional, and national meets, teams get excited to compete against their rival in a dual meet. Some examples: Cal vs. Stanford (116 year history), UCLA vs. USC (as a Bruin alum, this was a painful hyperlink to include), and Harvard vs. Yale (a meet that dates back to 1891). These dual meet rivalries are flamed by the schools’ proximity and long history of competition.
A good dual meet also occurs when the two teams are evenly matched. The men’s coaches from UCLA and Oregon got together in 2008 and decided to renew the rivalry between these two venerable track & field programs by having an annual UCLA-Oregon dual meet at Eugene’s Hayward Field. The 2009 meet was particularly close and exciting; the winner was not decided until the 4X400 relay. I won’t give away the result (you’ll have to watch the video of the race), but let me assure you, it was a dramatic race. The race leader changed several times during the race. UCLA Bruin and Oregon Duck athletes can be seen on the infield cheering on their respective teams. It was track & field dual meet action at its best!
At the elite level of track & field there are very few opportunities to compete in dual meets. With an emphasis on not over-racing and over-competing, and on achieving fast times and big marks, winning head-to-head competitions takes a backseat on most elite athletes’ competition calendar. These are reasons the dual meet is becoming a thing of the past. The Finns and Swedes are lucky, they get to enjoy a dual meet with the drama and excitement of their national pride on the line every year.