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What to Look For When Watching a Track Meet

Whether you’re an athlete, a fan, or you just know someone who competes in track and field, you can gain a lot from watching a track meet. The key to your experience as a spectator is to know where to look, and how.

Watching a track meet can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to the sport. Typically, there is a lot going on at once. If you don’t know where to direct your attention, the spectator experience can be boring. It’s not just a matter of knowing that the 100 meter (m) race is on the track. You will enjoy things more if you know also who is in the field, what’s on the line, what it took to get to this race, what constitutes a fast time, and how the competitors have prepared. Spectators, much like athletes, will have the best experience at a meet they are prepared for. This guide is filled with tips on how to get the most out of watching a track meet.

Do Your Homework

It may not seem like it if you’re watching world record holder Usain Bolt power away from an Olympic-caliber 100m field, but track and field really is a sport of subtleties. It’s not always obvious which events will determine whether a team wins or loses a meet, or which events are the most stacked with talent. A great performance depends entirely on the level of competition. Great rivalries are not restricted to the Olympics.

Amazingly True Story

In the 1991 World Championships, Mike Powell and Carl Lewis began the greatest long jump duel of all time. Lewis had been undefeated for 65 consecutive long jumps. Powell, despite having lost 15 in a row to Lewis, had lost by only one centimeter in the 1991 USA Championships several months earlier.

In the fourth round of the World Championships, Lewis jumped 8.91m, the farthest jump under any conditions ever. Bob Beamon’s mark of 8.90m had been a world record for 23 years. An American television announcer went so far as to say: “Lewis almost certainly has his hand on a third consecutive gold medal.”

Powell responded immediately with a fifth round jump of 8.95m, breaking the world record by five centimeters. In his two remaining jumps, Lewis went 8.87m and 8.84m with a legal wind. In the subsequent 19 years, the longest legal jump was only 8.74m. Still, for Lewis it was not enough. That these stunning marks all occurred in a single competition bears witness to how much a strong rivalry can better a competition.

Much of your ability to appreciate the meet will come from a general knowledge of the sport and its nuances. Any watching, reading, or competing you do will help you contextualize a given meet. Still, for each individual meet, there is a lot you can do to prepare. The following list will explain some options available to you.

Find a Pre-meet Write-up

For a high caliber track meet, a pre-meet write-up by a good sportswriter should cue you in to quite a bit. Not only will it give you some of the storylines of the meet, but should let you know which events are likely to be most competitive, which events will have the top athletes, and which records might fall. A good sportswriter will direct your attention to the action before it happens, and then review it once it’s over — often providing part of the back story that you would have never otherwise known about.

Consult a Heat Sheet

Heat sheets are often available for larger meets; either online or at the site of the competition. They let you know who is slated to compete and how the seeding has been done. They often give an athlete’s seasonal or all-time best in the event, as well as any pertinent records. This allows you — the fan — to build your own back story, anticipate rivalries, and figure out where the action is likely to take place.

Determine the Standard of Competition

You shouldn’t expect to see a world record set at a high school competition, but you might see an age group record if the meet is large enough. As often as not, if an athlete is making an attempt on a record, he will have announced intent to do so. When someone in an elite track race wants to make a record attempt, a ******rabbit**** will often be hired to run a specified pace that is usually made public. Knowing what marks are good for both genders and various age groups will help you appreciate a good performance.

Consider a case in which a runner takes a big lead during the first lap of a mile race. Knowing what a “good time” for the field is (not to mention knowing who’s the leader) will help you decide whether the leader simply outclasses the field. You might see something much more exciting: A bold tactical move that could win or lose the race for the frontrunner. Great competition is possible at every level. Knowing the standard will help you spot it.

Figure out What’s at Stake

What’s at stake? Every track and field meet has a different answer. It might be a medal, qualification to a larger meet, pride, or national rivalry. It might be tens of thousands of dollars. Everybody likes watching when the competitors are not only invested in what they are doing, but have an enormous amount riding on their success. Knowing whether an athlete is competing for a strong mark or a high place not only changes what you should expect, but can cue you to look out for particular tactics as well.

Seek out Rivalries

No matter the sport, rivalries make spectating fun. Not only is something on the line, but both sides will be much less willing to accept defeat.

At or During the Meet

Get a Program

Programs will be available at larger meets for a few dollars. Pick one up. It will usually list the meet schedule, entrants, and often some additional information (such as stadium or area records, or athlete profiles). Events in track and field go by pretty fast for the most part. Knowing what and who to look for before the event starts will help you know what you’re seeing.

Listen to the Announcer

Whether you’re in the stands or on your couch, there will almost always be an announcer who is essentially there to draw your attention to the action. At many higher level meets, athlete interviews or back stories will also be presented. Announcers will not only direct your attention to the current action, but will provide statistics and give you crucial information about competitors as the action progresses.

Talk to Other Fans

If you’re at a meet, look around and find a fellow fan to talk to. Ask a question, make a comment, and see if they know anybody competing. If so, find out their story. There’s a path that took every athlete to this particular meet. Most of the time, a person in the stands will know one or two of these stories. Who knows? You might just make a friend.

Between Meets

Being a track and field fan doesn’t stop when the competition ends. There is a reason why you’ll have more fun watching a track meet as your knowledge base grows: You’ll be building a storyline and enabling yourself to compare performances across time and ability level. So, read relevant track and field news, seek out interviews, follow the results, and go to more meets! As track and field gains popularity, it is slowly but steadily becoming more accessible to the sport’s newcomers. Still, effort is required on your part as track and field fan to seek out the background information that will let your love for the sport flourish.

Whether you're new to track and field, or have been around the sport for a long time, knowing what to look for in a meet can greatly enhance your spectator experience.
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