Track and field is not a major beat in the United States; instead, it’s a sport that garners more interest in the years preceding and following an Olympics. Otherwise, it is relegated to second-tier, or fringe status, by most editors and writers even though it an exciting sport to cover.
Covering a track meet is like reporting on 14 (or more) little stories. It’s just a matter of which events to focus on – the 100 meters, 1,500 meters, the long jump? Most of these choices are made before the meet begins.
Fewer readers understand the rules or know the athletes in a sport like track. That means a reporter needs to find a human interest angle that even non-track fans can enjoy.
“When you cover track and field and swimming, maybe two out of a hundred readers are really devoted to the sport,” says New York Times sportswriter Frank Litsky. “You can’t write for two people. You have to pull in the others by focusing on people. Like the swimmer with the defibrillator or runner recovering from cancer. If you tell stories, you can get people to read them.”
This is more likely to happen if the reporter has done his homework, says Litsky, the author of eight books on sports – including one on track and field.
“When I go to a meet, I do research ahead of time. Who’s in the meet? What’s the biographical information? There are usually certain people I want to watch because they’re world class. I never want to go to a meet cold. You can’t cover everything at a track event. You can’t watch it and interview people at the same time. You have to interview after events have ended and when other events are taking place.”
So you need to choose which athletes to cover before most meets. Once you do find the main angle, speak to as many coaches and athletes as possible to tell the story, which might be on how high jumper returned from a broken foot to win the high school district meet. You can speak with the winner, of course. But you can also speak with the other competitors, asking them to describe this jumper’s technique and mental toughness, and asking them how they approached their own jumps -- especially the last few when they were eliminated. Show this tension in your story. Add commentary from coaches as well.
Then, you can focus on another story, if you have space, before jumping into a quick overview where you list the other significant results. (See the example below.)
In other events:
■ Clearwater High’s Shawana Smith ran 12.21 to win the 100 meters by one-hundredth of a second over Tampa Catholic’s Molly Clutter.
■ Dunedin’s Marlise Davidson set a district record in the 800 meters, clocking in at 2 minutes, 12.29 seconds.
■ Countryside’s Kandace Arnold set a personal best in the shot put, heaving it 42 feet, 6.75 inches.
Go to the event as early as you can. Typically, field events and prelims start much earlier. Field events for a high school district meet might begin at 4 p.m., followed by finals at 6 or 7 p.m. Preliminary races also start earlier, but you can usually avoid these and focus on the field events. Check out these early events for stories or sidebar notes before the meet gets harried.
And talk with coaches before the meet, if possible. Introduce yourself as you arrive as well. Ask them which athletes you should follow. This is a better time to talk since they will be busy timing and cajoling their runners during the finals. Do not wait to speak with the coaches until the end of the meet, though. Pick spots between races for some comments. If this is your first meet, ask a coach if you can watch some of the events with him. You can learn much just by watching and listening.
THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Focus on the top athletes, those who have a chance to break a record at the state, college or world level. If you are covering a high school or college meet, you can focus on the person who is a serious contender for a state or national title. This means you need to do check out the best times of those scheduled to compete. Check times on newspaper, conference and school athletic web sites. Most NCAA conferences post their schools’ best times as either best of the week or as individual performance lists. “Prepare for any assignment,” says Litsky. “If I have an interest in some athlete, I’ll Google them and then do some other research on my own. That way I can have questions drawn up. I then listen to their responses to questions. You can’t just go up and say, ‘Tell me about you.’”
■ Wind – a tail wind can make a big difference in times. Wind over 2 meters per second (roughly 4.7 mph) nullifies most world records.
■ Track materials – check to see what type of track, such as rubber or synthetic. Certain materials can lead to faster times.
■ Pace – check on the pace for several reasons. First, some runners do better when they go out fast and push the time the whole time. Second, some runners do poorly when they are forced to go out too fast, especially those runners who have a very strong kick. The term “kick” varies depending on the length of a race. A miler might kick the final 200 meters, where a 5,000-meter runner might kick for the final quarter mile. Record quarter-mile splits for races that go from 800 meters and up. (Bring a stop watch, if you can. If not, stand by the starting line to record times – and verify these with coaches later.)
■ One-on-one battles – Take notes as runners battle one another during the race and down the stretch. Cite when the runners begin their kicks, for example. What runners had the best times entering the race? (Ask runners to walk you through their races later.)
■ Check on records before a race whenever possible at the Track and Field News site. You can also learn much about the sport by reading this publication in print and online.
■ Check out the NCAA’s web site for rules, records and other college track news.
■ Talk to the field athletes. Most of the time, these athletes compete rather anonymously. Says Litsky: “There are three events where people are the most interesting – the hammer throw, pole vault and shot put. Here’s what they have in common: the public doesn’t understand what they’re doing. That’s a fact. They all talk. And they are usually interesting.”
■ Hand-offs. See who gains (or loses) the most ground during hand-offs for relay events. Runners have a short area where they are allowed to pass along the baton. Hand-offs become more significant the shorter the distance. For example, hand-offs for the 4 by 100 meters are even more important than for the distance medley because a half-second can prove the difference between winning and fifth place. Ask the runners and coaches about them after the event.
■ Comparing times. You do not have to cite every runner’s time when you are covering a single race. You can refer to other times in other ways. For example, you can write: “Jane Gooden clocked in at 2 minutes, 10. 3 seconds to win the 800 meters, beating runner-up Felicia Smith by 2.4 seconds.” (The reader can easily do the math to determine the time here: 2:12.7). You can also offer space as a determinant: “Marion Jones flew past all competitors to win the 100 meters in 10.1 seconds, two full steps ahead of her nearest rival.”
■ Comparing distances. You can do the same here, citing lengths and heights instead: “Frank Smith leaped six inches farther than his nearest competitor to win the conference long jump title. Smith soared 24 feet, 11 inches for his second title, followed by John Jones (24-5) and Fred Short (24-1).”
THINGS TO KNOW
■ Scoring – Varies depending whether this a meet among four or fewer teams or whether this is an invitational or championship meet. For meets with four or fewer teams, scoring varies. Check out the NCAA rule book to verify scoring for meets with two, three or four teams. For bigger NCAA meets (invitationals, championships), winners earn 10 points followed by 8-6-5-4-3-2-1. If the meet has fewer than six teams, scoring changes to 10-8-6-4-2-1. Check with race officials to verify the scoring format when you arrive.
■ Distances – Use numerals to cite distances but separate them by commas. A long jumper would leap 19 feet, 6 inches.
■ Meters. All world and collegiate running distances are in meters, not yards.
■ Times – Spell out minutes in first reference. You should write that a runner won the 1,500 meters in 5 minutes, 9. 4 seconds. After this, you can say the next runner finished in 5:10.23. That way readers understand we are speaking about minutes in first reference. Denote the time in all race stories. On another note, you would write that Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 10 minutes, 23. 2 seconds, followed by Alberto Salazar in 2:11:02.9.
■ PR – Abbreviation for ‘personal record.’ This is a runner’s personal best time.
■ USA Track & Field (USATF) – This is the National Governing Body for track and field, long-distance running and race walking in the United States.
■ Qualifying – in larger meets, runners need to qualify for the finals in sprint events since the lanes limit the number of participants to eight. Typically, this is required for races that go 400 meters and less. Distance races do not have this same limitation, so race above 800 meters do not typically have qualifying. The field would have to be very large to require this.
■ Provisional qualifying – The NCAA sets times and distances it believes will limit the field for the national championships at the beginning of the season, meaning athletes who reach these levels can qualify. However, if too many athletes surpass the prescribed levels, the NCAA will reduce the number, meaning some who qualified are no longer eligible. Hence the reason for the term ‘provisional.’
■ Automatic qualifying times – These are times and distances that give an athlete an automatic berth in the national championships, regardless how many people reach this level. These levels are more difficult to reach. For example, in 2007, a 60 meter time of 6.62 seconds earned an automatic berth. That’s .12 second faster than the provisional time of 6.74. A tenth of a second is significant in short sprints.
■ Banked tracks – These banked lanes usually yield faster times, allowing runners to accelerate even faster around turns. The automatic time for 200 meters this past season was .25 seconds slower for non-banked times. Those qualifying on banked tracks needed to run 20.83 seconds, compared to 21.08 for non-banked races.
■ Last Chance meets – these are meets held toward the end of the season for the main purpose of helping athletes qualify for the NCAA championships. Team points and trophies are not usually awarded.
■ FAT – Refers to fully automated timing, as opposed to hand-held timing. Most meets do not use FAT systems, so they cannot be measured in hundredths. Instead, hand-held times are rounded up to the next tenth of second. So a hand-held 10.89 100 meters should be recorded as a 10.9.
In addition, .24 seconds are added to hand held times shorter than 300 meters. So a 200-meter hand-held time of 22.9 would equate to 23.14 for any honor roll lists. Add .14 seconds for distances more than 30 meters.
■ Field events – athletes usually have three attempts to reach each set height. Number of attempts come into play to determine final place if two or more athletes stop at the same distance. So a pole vaulter who makes 12 feet, 6 inches on his first attempt would be named the winner.
■ Medleys – these are relays where runners cover different distances. Unlike the 4x400, where each runner covers 400 meters, medleys rely on athletes with different specialties. For example, the sprint medley requires short and middle-distance sprinters to cover 200-200-400-800 meters in that order. The Distance Medley relies more on long sprinters and middle-distance runners to cover 1200-400-800-1600 meters in that order.
■ Indoor meets are a little different. Tracks are typically smaller for indoor meets so some of the distances vary. For example, the 100 meters is replaced by the 60 meters and the 110-meter hurdles is replaced by the 60-meter hurdles. In addition, indoor meets also have relays (4 x 400 meters, 4 x 800 meters). Some races have a distance medley where runners run three separate distances – 1,200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters and 1,600 meters.
■ Decathlon – male athletes compete in 10 events that cover sprints, middle-distance runs and field competition. The events include 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 100-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters, usually in that order.
■ Heptathlon – this is the female version, where athletes compete in seven events that include the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters.
The following are standard USA Open and Junior Outdoor Track and Field championships:
• 100 meters
• 200 meters
• 400 meters
• 800 meters
• 1500 meters
• 5000 meters
• 10,000 meters
• 20,000 meter walk
• 110-meter hurdles
• 400-meter hurdles
• 3,000-meter steeplechase
• High jump
• Pole Vault
• Long jump
• Triple jump
• Shot put
• Discuss throw
• Hammer throw
• Javelin throw
QUESTIONS TO ASK ATHLETES
Give athletes some time to catch their breath before you ask them questions.
■ What were you thinking during the race (or as you leaped, threw the shot, etc.)?
■ What was your strategy going into this event?
■ How did this performance prepare you for the conference (or state) championships?
■ Have you ever competed against any of the other athletes before? Follow up: Ask for stories about the previous competitions. They may have even grown up together (if so, gather stories about this.)
■ Was there a point in the race (or field event) where you felt particularly strong?
■ Was there a point where you felt weaker?
■ Were you watching, or focusing on, any competitors? Which ones and why?
■ How had you thought you would do before the event started? What were your goals entering this event?
■ What surprised you the most?
■ Gather information more than quotes. For example, if you ask how they felt before the race, follow up with questions that reveal particular details you can use to tell a story. Don’t worry, you’ll get more then enough quotes as you talk with people. Then, tell this story by piecing together these details. You can pepper a few quotes in a well.
QUESTIONS TO ASK COACHES
■ What was your pre-race strategy?
■ Did runners follow your pre-race strategy?
■ What were your goals for the race?
■ What types of workouts had the team go through the past week to prepare for this race? Were these workouts different from training the previous few weeks?
■ Ask coaches to explain anything that you are not certain about, meaning anything you cannot write with an authoritative voice.
■ Did you notice anything different about your team during the race?
■ Ask coaches to explain strategy and techniques. Sometimes, it is better to put down your notepad and just listen at these points, especially if you plan to cover track again. Absorb the information so you can observe events better down the line – and so you can ask better questions. There is nothing wrong with writing some of this down. Or, you can tape this conversation to listen to later (WARNING: As always, make sure anybody you interview knows you are taping the conversation. I always ask if they mind. Most do not, but they will appreciate your honesty.)
Do not limit yourself to these questions, though. Listen and respond to what people tell you during your conversations at these meets – and do not be afraid to try something non-traditional in writing your stories, especially if you are writing for a high school or college publication where sports writers need to take chances in order to grow as reporters. You will fail at times, but often you can learn from these mistakes to get better. Basically, learn as much as you can about the events and athletes so you can tell well-informed stories. Research before you arrive. Then, watch, listen, observe and interview. Covering track can be busy. But, like a 5,000-meter runner, pace yourself so you can finish strong on deadline. Good luck.