The Black Athlete: Diversity of Track & Field

The Black Athlete: Diversity of Track & Field

Omar Tyree
By Omar Tyree
NNPA Columnist

 
For the past five weekends, my wife and I have sat through countless hours of indoor track and field meets, where my youngest son, Canoy, runs the 1,000 meters as one of the Top 10, middle distance, high school sophomores in the state of North Carolina. After years of playing organized basketball, baseball, football and recently soccer, we’re sure glad that he found track and field. It’s become a great equalizer for him… and for us as hopeful parents.

As my son likes to joke, “Track isn’t really even a sport. All you do is this…” as he shuffles his arms and legs forward mimicking a robot. My son now knows that thousands of kids take track and field very seriously. Some of them have definitely inherited genetic information from their parents for speed, but the majority of consistently good runners have learned to work for it, while putting in mile after mile of breathing, striding, keeping their form and channeling their minds over their body’s to finish a strong race and not give in to fatigue.

A dedicated football player in my own high school years, I’ve understood the importance of track and field for decades. Quality running goes hand in hand with nearly every other sport. But after running track from 4th through 8th grade in elementary school, I didn’t return to it until my senior year of high school, where I was talked into running the 400 meter hurdles and the 4×400 meter relay. Well, guess what I ended doing in my freshman in college at the University of Pittsburgh in 1987 instead of playing football? I ran more track.

Track and field is that one sport where a person’s body type, weight and height don’t really matter. You simply find the event that fits you the best. Although my youngest son is now several inches taller than his older brother, Canoy is still not tall enough to legitimately play his first love of basketball at the next level. You have to be the toughest point guard in the world when you’re still under six feet. Neither of sons have the body size or physicality to play football like I did. Baseball got tossed in the garage with our old leather catching gloves, and soccer has now been reduced to a traveling sport of club teams, with a very slim chance of earning a scholarship for it.

So my son Canoy came full circle and found track and field in his freshman year, while learning to run the same event that his mother ran for four years at Howard University, the 800 meters. He’s perfectly built for the 800 as well; long and slim. Only a 15-year-old sophomore, my son still has a few years left to put on some needed weight and muscle. He may even grow a few more inches.

While watching, literally, thousands of kids compete in indoor track and field events these past few months, my wife and I have witnessed hardworking boys and girls of every race, class, creed, height, weight, body size, and all on the same track. On a cultural level, it’s been really inspiring. Track and field is the true American melting pot of sports.

Of course, you still have your cultural separations depending on the different events. Black kids continue to dominate the sprints, while White kids dominate the distance events. The cut off seems to be the 800 meters, right where my son has landed. He doesn’t want to go up and run the mile or the 1,600 with the endurance-running White kids, and he’s terrified of even trying the 400, where some of the powerful Black football players await.

The high jump, long jump and triple jump competitions remain dominated by long kids with springs for legs and agile bodies, and mostly Black boys are winning. But not so much with young women – White girls hang right in there on every jumping event. Pole vaulting? Nope. You won’t find too many Black kids lined up for that, but you do have a few.

Then, you head over to the shot put and discus throw areas for the track and field beefcakes. Most of these kids have their minds set to compete for several years too, as they will all grow stronger, more experienced and more confident with age. Just like my son will.

I hate to put increased pressure on him, but track and field kids still receive full scholarships to college all across this country. In fact, I ran with half dozen Jamaicans at the University of Pittsburgh in 1987. Young Jamaican kids continue to flood the country every year at Philadelphia’s famous Penn Relays Carnival, seeking hundreds opportunities. So if your sons and daughters are not doing anything else, try them out on a track and field team before it’s too late, and see what events they could specialize in as they learn and grow.

 

Omar Tyree is a New York Times bestselling author, an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Fiction, and a professional journalist, who has published 27 books, including co-authoring Mayor For Life; The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr. View more of his career and work @ www.OmarTyree.com.

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