No pain no gain

Track / Image by Monica Kostas

The fifth installment in Recomposition's 'Politics on the Field' series comes to us from Chicago where Kingsley Clarke discusses his love of track and field, a view into youth coaching of the sport, and the class and racial dynamics that exist today.

Today our 5th installment in Politics on the Field comes to us from Chicago where Kingsley Clarke discusses his love of track and field, a view into youth coaching of the sport, and the class and racial dynamics that exist today.

A few years ago an elite sprinter who trained in the same facility as our youth track club ran the season’s fastest indoor 55 meter dash. Within minutes of his race, before he could even catch his breath, his cell phone “blew up”. Meet directors from all over Europe: Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid called. They wanted this fastest sprinter’s commitment to compete in their upcoming meets. Shy and modest, his post race humor captured the moment, athletic and political: “They can’t find a Nigerian shoe bomber, but they can find a Jamaican sprinter halfway around the world.” [I assume they had his cell number from previous entries, and of course race results are electronically reported immediately.] His wonderful irony expresses the state of track and field in the U.S. Largely ignored at home, track and field athletes are heralded in Europe. Elite U.S. track and field athletes often say that they can walk down any street here and never be recognized, but are recognized as they come off the plane in Europe.

I help coach track. I surveyed some of our University of Chicago Track Club athletes and the other coaches on what they liked most and least about track and field. On “least”, Homer Thomas, our head coach, wrote without hesitation, indeed, in the midst of practice: “The lack of public interest (as shown by newspaper and media)-except in an Olympic year. Cities such as Chicago give very little support to the sport, on any level: grade school, high school, college or club.” Thus do lovers of the sport universally deplore U.S. lack of interest! A historical indication of the progression of waning interest comes to mind. In 1959, fifty-seven years ago, I was a “paperboy” for the Boston Globe. I still recall that the top half of the front page, not the sports section, the front page; was simply a photo of John Thomas going over the bar. Thomas, a 17 year-old, had the previous night become the first person to high jump seven feet. If the eight- foot- plus record were broken this February 2016, at these same New York Millrose games, I suspect the story would be buried somewhere in the sports pages. Nobody but track fans would pay attention.

What happened? What happened in those fifty-seven years? Video games, skate boarding, the explosion of TV entertainment (such as cage fighting), the popularity of pick-up basketball, are obvious causes of the public decline of track and field. Outside the public eye, in the world of athletes, there is in addition a subterranean cause. Track training and competition used to be considered advantageous, if not essential, for athletes in other sports. It was standard for high school and college athletes, particularly backs and wide receivers, to be instructed by coaches to “go out for” track in the spring. Competing in the 100, 220, and 440 yard dashes {pre-metric} was considered to be a perfect base for fall football. No more. I am quite obviously, almost existentially so, “Old School”, but I still believe in that approach: football in the fall and track in the spring. There is nothing like the positive impact on the body and soul of fighting through the pain of that last 110 yards of the 440. I once felt as if a cannonball had hit me in the chest on that final turn. (A veteran coach greeted me at the finish line with: “that’s how you are supposed to feel!”.) That translates well to bursting off-tackle at full speed and yet knowing that you are about to get hit by a 250 pound linebacker. However, Division I college football coaches disagree. They now demand spring weight training programs that preclude track. In other words, football, and football specific training, reigns.

But there is a duality here. At the neighborhood- level , at the base, track is big. Afro-American youth still gravitate to the sport. Our club has approximately one-hundred athletes, at least 90 of whom are Afro-American, most are girls and young women. Girls and their parents know that track is perhaps the best opportunity for receiving a college scholarship. Please allow our athletes to speak for themselves on why the like track.

A seven year-old boy: “I like track and field because it makes me strong”

A nine year-old girl: “What I like about track is that I get to be free to run and I get to compete against others. In case I do long jump, I want to jump as far as I dream I could.”

An eight year-old girl: “I like to race and run and see how fast I am”.

An eight year-old girl: “I like the long jump because I am jumping into a pit of sand and I’m good at it.”

A sixteen year-old woman: “It is not just running. You have shot, discus, high jump, horizontal jumps and hammer. It is so unique. You could be on a team or you can just be an individual. That’s what I like about it.” She, by the way is one of the top triple jumpers in the United States. I have seen courageous efforts by these youth that I would not have imagined prior to coaching.

When I attend a national AAU or USATF youth meet there are thousands of Afro-American competitors and parents in the stands, on the track and infield. Most appear to be working class. There most certainly is no sense of privilege and entitlement. Such whiteness and class privilege rears its ugly head around here in only in the “preciousness” of youth soccer.

The purity of the sport, the perfect oval, attracts. The rules are pure and simple. No intricate delayed reviews of whether or not it was a “catch”, a fumble, a touchdown. If one runs around that oval faster than anyone else, nobody can take it away from you: no referee, no teammate, no coach. The same is true of the throws and jumps. With the exception of relays, it is all about one’s individual existential effort.

Please allow a personal note of conclusion. There is nothing worse than an old guy talking about “Glory Days” as perfectly expressed by Bruce Springsteen. I have had the privilege of competing at the scholastic level in tennis, basketball, wrestling, football and track. The essential teamwork of football and basketball are compelling. However, nothing equals lining up on a 400 meter track with seven other sprinters, the gut-wrenching initial feeling of aloneness, the pain of the effort (a cannonball hitting the chest), and the liberation of hitting the tape.

Kingsley Clark lives in Chicago, long-time political activist, assistant coach University of Chicago Track Club

Originally posted: February 22, 2016 at Recomposition

Posted By

Oct 25 2016 00:25


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Oct 27 2016 09:06

There is nothing worse than an old guy talking about “Glory Days” as perfectly expressed by Bruce Springsteen.

Yeah, and Pete Townsend expressed it even more perfectly: Hope I die before I get old...

Should we consider it unfortunate that they're both still around?

And what's even more interesting is that Il Duce and his cronies would have agreed 100% with the last two paragraphs...

Oct 27 2016 11:11

I found this place, you'll probably like it there.

Meanwhile, maybe admin can have a word about derailing otherwise interesting articles with infantile sports = fascism rants?

Oct 27 2016 15:51

You, on the other hand, will feel perfectly at home here, where your true vocation lies. Join the force now:

Fall Back
Oct 27 2016 17:27

Say what you like, but fair is fair, it's a bold positional gambit to take to a politics forum with no thoughts, beliefs or opinions other than "actually, sports are bad. Not good like you think."

Oct 27 2016 17:56

I agree that fair is fair and that it's a bold positional gambit etc., (nonetheless, I still say pigs is pigs). However the idea that I've brought "no thoughts, beliefs or opinions other than 'actually, sports are bad'" is pure and simply false, and just shows that you aren't bringing much to it either, beyond the shrewd strategic assesssnent. But no worries, I'll be bringing quite a few onto this forum soon enough, despite the fact that they won't be mine nor do I fully agree with all of them...

Oct 27 2016 18:03

Let's take a look at nization's contributions.
Anti-sports, anti-sports, anti-sports, ...

Oct 27 2016 18:17

Would you like me to contribute to other subjects, Craftwork? I think not. But all in my own good time. By the way, I bet there are plenty of other "culprits" of limiting their interventions to a few very specific topics. Are they subject to libcom(munity) policing -or should I say pathetically cheap shots (alas, to each according to their needs and capacities...)- as well?

Oct 27 2016 18:36

By the way, Sir, I find your choice of "favourite thinkers" almost impeccable...

Jacques Camatte, for one, had the following to say about sports:

Le sport est également lié au mouvement de la valeur. Il renferme la dimension du jeu – dans son antique acception, mais aussi dans celle qui s’est imposée avec l’instauration de la valeur puisqu’il permet les paris – de la représentation, de la justice (à travers l’activité des arbitres mais aussi à travers l’œuvre des critiques) ; en outre il intègre les conflits (il est guerre). (ÉPILOGUE AU MANIFESTE DU PARTI COMMUNISTE 1848)

As well as: "Abolition de la pratique du sport qui est pratique de l’absurde, forme théâtrale de la concurrence capitaliste et support fondamental de la publicité." (EMERGENCE ET DISSOLUTION)

And there he goes again!:

La tendance à aller au-delà des limites (dont nous avons souvent parlé à propos du capital) nécessite une alimentation droguée comme cela est spectaculairement opérant chez les sportifs, mais également présent chez tous. (PERSPECTIVE)

Silly bugger, huh? And a hater, to boot...

Oct 27 2016 20:31

Did Jacques Camatte spend all his time making snide remarks in the comments section of sports-related articles on I think not.

Oct 28 2016 09:51

Ah, to what lengths people will go to avoid engaging with the real issue at hand...

(I spend a very minute portion of my time indeed making snide remarks in the comments section of sports-related articles on, I'll have you know. I do have other places to attend to that are equally, if not more in need of snide remarks...)

And by the way, maybe we should stop speaking of Camatte in the past tense? According to these pages, he's alive and well in Southern France. Apparently he's into martial arts too. Now there's something to spend a lot of time on... thanks, don't mind if I do...