FILE— In this Feb. 23, 2019, file photo, Vashti Cunningham poses for photographers after winning the women’s high jump final at the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships in New York. Cunningham is one of the athletes who will be competing in the American Track League, which opens a four-week-long series on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 in an indoor setting at the University of Arkansas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez. File)

FILE— In this Feb. 23, 2019, file photo, Vashti Cunningham poses for photographers after winning the women’s high jump final at the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships in New York. Cunningham is one of the athletes who will be competing in the American Track League, which opens a four-week-long series on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 in an indoor setting at the University of Arkansas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez. File)

Back on track: Competing, not cash, lures big names to meet

American Track League begins a four-week indoor series at the University of Arkansas

The prospect of winning prize money isn’t what brings high jumper Vashti Cunningham, sprinter Andre De Grasse and other top names in track to an indoor meet in Arkansas this weekend.

Because there is none.

Instead, the athletes are going for something that feels every bit as valuable these days, and could even lead to an Olympic gold medal. It’s actual competition — much in demand with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down large swaths of their sport, and with the Tokyo Games rapidly approaching in July.

The American Track League begins a four-week indoor series Sunday at the University of Arkansas. It’s a chance for athletes to see how they stack up in a time when COVID-19 has made training sometimes difficult and travelling overseas for meets almost unthinkable.

The league — founded in 2013 to provide a condensed, fast-paced meet format — doesn’t have a major sponsor at the moment and will operate on a shoestring budget, meaning no prize money for the winners as of now.

And still, there’s a waiting list to enter.

“Everyone is so hungry to compete,” meet organizer/agent Paul Doyle said by phone.

Doyle has assembled a star-packed field of mostly North Americans. There’s Cunningham, the bronze medallist at the 2019 world championships, along with De Grasse, a three-time Olympic medallist for Canada. There’s also 2016 Olympic shot put champion Ryan Crouser, who trains at Arkansas, and Omar McLeod, the Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion representing Jamaica who once starred at Arkansas.

There will be plenty of exposure, with all four competitions — held on consecutive Sundays — televised on ESPN networks. The lineup of events changes, too, with a few — men’s and women’s 60 metres — contested all four weeks.

The amount of support for the meet has astonished Doyle. From fellow agents to athletes to coaches, everyone’s on board.

“Athletes that would typically be getting $20,000 to $30,000 to show up and race are coming just because they want to race,” Doyle said. “They’re actually thankful for the opportunity, which blows my mind and makes me really humbled.”

Doyle hoped to line up enough sponsors to reward the winners because it’s “never the intention to have athletes run for free.” But in this economy, it didn’t pan out.

To save on expenses, he’s actually hauling track and field equipment from Atlanta to Fayetteville, Arkansas, in his camper.

Anything to stage a meet.

Usually around this time, athletes are starting to prepare their calendars for European meets and the Diamond League series. Given the travel restrictions, lining anything up has been increasingly difficult.

“The meet directors can’t risk (an invitation) by saying, ‘Let’s commit to four or five North American athletes at each event,’ only to find out three days before they can’t get on the plane,” Doyle said. “We end up with no opportunities for North American-based athletes.”

This meet also provides good exposure for the athletes’ sponsors — and potential sponsors.

“A lot of athletes are in limbo, with contracts that ended,” explained Crouser, who renewed a deal with Nike. “They’re wanting to compete and show sponsors, ‘Hey, I haven’t just been sitting on the couch for the last 10 months. I’ve been working hard.’”

It’s also a chance to “dust these cobwebs off,” said American sprinter/hurdler Keni Harrison, especially with the Olympic Trials just five months away. This will be Harrison’s first competition since July.

She’s looking forward to racing in the 60- and 300-meter events Sunday to test her new sprint technique, the one she’s been honing during the pandemic.

“I’ve been putting in some great work and it will be nice to finally see where we’re at and then get ready for the outdoor season,” said Harrison, the world record holder in the 100 hurdles who trains in Texas. “It’s really important to get back to the competition again.”

Her goal: To win, of course.

Crouser’s staring at a number: 22.66 metres (74 feet, 4 1/4 inches), which happens to be the longstanding world indoor shot put record.

The 28-year-old threw 22.58 metres (74 feet, 1 inch) at a meet in Manhattan, Kansas, on Dec. 5.

“I’m in good shape to throw far,” Crouser said. “For me and the other athletes, we’re all just happy to compete and showcase the diligence and dedication we have through this difficult time.”

By The Associated Press

Sports

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A candlelight vigil will be held in Red Deer on Thursday to honour the 350-plus people killed in the Easter bombing attack in Sri Lanka. Contributed photo
Candlelight vigil planned for deaths linked to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak

A candlelight vigil is being planned for those who died due to… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Jaxsen Wiebe battles Calgary Hitmen forward Cael Zimmerman for a loose puck when the two teams squared off in February last season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Calgary Hitmen shutout Red Deer Rebels

Rebels name centre Jayden Grubbe team captain ahead of Friday’s game

Traffic will be delayed on 40th Avenue and 19th Street until the end of February. (Advocate file photo).
Traffic delays expected downtown this weekend

Red Deer drivers will be delayed in the downtown area of the… Continue reading

COVID
Red Deer down to 313 active cases of COVID-19

Alberta reports an additional 411 COVID-19 cases

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
WATCH: Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Harley Hay
Harley Hay: Just don’t call it cod liver oil

Many people swear that a daily dose of various vitamins is an… Continue reading

Email editor@auburn-reporter.com
Letter: Preserving green spaces in Red Deer

The Advocate published an article Feb. 11 about Sunnybrook residents concerned about… Continue reading

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, top, is shown on the bench after NHL action against the Clagary Flames  in Calgary, Alta., Thursday April 9, 2015. Sutter says he has "unfinished business" as he returns to coach the Calgary Flames. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Darryl Sutter has ‘unfinished business’ in return to Calgary Flames

Darryl Sutter has ‘unfinished business’ in return to Calgary Flames

Walter Gretzky talks to people while at the funeral of Celtic music legend John Allan Cameron at St. Isaac Jogues Church in Pickering, Ont., Monday, Nov. 27, 2006. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
‘A legend in his own right’: Hockey world pays tribute to the late Walter Gretzky

‘A legend in his own right’: Hockey world pays tribute to the late Walter Gretzky

Jordan Spieth follows his approach shot to the ninth green during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament Friday, March 5, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Conners builds 1-shot lead at Bay Hill as McIlroy lurks

Conners builds 1-shot lead at Bay Hill as McIlroy lurks

Team Canada skip Brad Gushue makes a shot as he plays Team Ontario at the Brier in Calgary, Alta., Friday, March 5, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Brier in the Bubble: Defending champion Gushue beats Epping in opening draw

Brier in the Bubble: Defending champion Gushue beats Epping in opening draw

Switzerland's celebrates after the final match at the Women's Curling World Championship in Silkeborg Denmark Sunday March 24. 2019. The 2021 world women's curling championship is back on the curling calendar. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ritzau Scanpix - Henning Bagger
Women’s world curling championship back on calendar, added to Calgary bubble

Women’s world curling championship back on calendar, added to Calgary bubble

Most Read