As the Olympic decathlon commences today to a collective yawn from the American public, the decline of track and field in the United States comes into full relief. The combination of multiple drug scandals and a lack of compelling American stars have sped the sport’s decline, with swimming replacing it as the major source of US medals. Furthermore, gymnastics, with its large female audience, has become the biggest ratings draw for American television during the Olympics.
Throughout my childhood, track stars held the spotlight in the pre-Games hype. Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Jackie-Joyner Kersee, and Michael Johnson were the biggest Summer Olympic stars of the 1980s and 90s. When I attended the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, I went during the second week so I could attend four nights of track and field.
Going back further in time, the Olympic winning decathlete always received the title of “world’s greatest athlete” and a series of Americans held this crown, including Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson and, of course, Bruce Jenner. His triumph in the ’76 Montreal Games made him a household name, leading to lucrative endorsements, a brief acting career, and his current supporting role with the Kardashians.
In 1992, Reebok fashioned an advertising campaign around rival American decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Remembered as the “Dan and Dave” ads, it centered on their fight for the gold medal in the Barcelona Games. The campaign went awry when O’Brien no heighted the pole vault at the US trials, causing him to miss the team and the games entirely. Johnson did qualify and manage to win the bronze despite injury, but I’m guessing not even Don Draper could survive the financial fallout from the disaster.
While O’Brien did recover and come back to win the gold in Atlanta, he never became a celebrity on the scale of Jenner. 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay (who?) endured a similar fate. Even with a potential American sweep in the offing this year, I’m guessing we won’t see the decathlon winner on a Wheaties box like Jenner.
On the other hand, Madison Avenue has knocked on swimmer Michael Phelps’ door for almost a decade and will likely continue to do so. As the biggest American star in three consecutive Olympics, he has almost single-handedly elevated his sport, with NBC airing this year’s US swimming trials in prime time while consigning the track trials to its cable counterpart. American swimmers achieved their greatest performance since the ’84 Los Angeles Games, when the competition was weakened by a Soviet bloc boycott. No doubt young stars like Missy Franklin and others who excelled during this games were inspired to enter the sport by Phelps’ celebrity.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the American track team won an average of 31 medals per games from 1896-1988, compared to a mere 17 medals per games for the swimming squad. Since 1992, though, the track team has averaged only 23, with the swimmers upping their average to a gaudy 32 (WSJ, August 4, 2012).
American success has also propelled gymnastics to center stage. The first week of the games always has higher ratings because of female viewers’ interest in the sport. Though the 1970s were highlighted by the performances of international gymnasts such as Russian Olga Korbut and Romanian Nadia Comaneci, America has surpassed its old rivals and produced stars like Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, and Shawn Johnson. Earning gold medals in the team competition, individual all-around, and the floor exercise, the U.S. women reigned supreme in London. Millions await newly minted stars Gabby Douglas and Ally Raisman and a Wheaties box is certainly in the offing for them.
No doubt the lack of dominant American sprinters and the concomitant rise of Jamaican runners has limited interest, but a series of drug scandals have been just as important, dating to the Canadian star Ben Johnson’s disqualification from the 1988 games after his win in the 100-meter dash. Though major league baseball seems to be thriving despite the fallout from its “Steroid Era,” the American public seems to have tuned track out, even during the Olympics. While Jamaican Usain Bolt is the star of the second week of the games, the lack of an American rival to his dominance means this trend will likely continue.