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Wed, Oct. 16

Opinion: AIA’s podium call the worst false start at 2019 state track meet

The most heart-wrenching thing you’ll ever see is a kid getting called for a false start at a state track and field championship.

In track vernacular, it’s often referred to as “one and done.”

It’s heartbreaking, certainly for the athlete, but almost equally for the thousands of folks who came to watch this theater of the unexpected called track and field.

The 2019 Arizona State Track and Field Championships had a few of those painful moments.

But the worst false start of all took place before a single runner stepped on the track for Saturday’s finals.

It involved a decision by the sport’s governing authority, the Arizona Interscholastic Association, to move the awards podium behind the timing administration tent.

This was a dramatic break from tradition in Arizona prep track and field. For as long as anyone associated with the sport could remember, the awards podium and ceremony has taken place immediately in front of the main grandstand. This allowed the thousands of people who paid to watch the state track championships show some love to the four athletes who earned medals in their specialty events.

It put the young athletes front and center, and created a moment they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

That’s the way it’s always been done in the past.

This year, the four athletes were instead shuffled off the track and taken to an area behind the timing tent. Those interested in watching the awards ceremony had to leave their grandstand seats and walk to the tent area.

It gets worse.

In Arizona, we have the most knowledgeable and engaging track and field public address announcer in the United States. His name is Ron Smith. He is a former longtime high school track coach. During his college years, he ran at Northern Arizona University for famed Coach Leo “Red” Haberlack.

Smith knows the history of the sport in Arizona as well as anyone. He is a member of the Arizona Track and Field Hall of Fame not for anything he ever did as an athlete or coach, but for the many years he has served as the “Voice” of the sport in Arizona.

As an announcer, Smith is without peer. His voice, his ability to engage the audience, his ability to provide instant historical perspective make Smith as essential to an Arizona state track meet as starting blocks and the starter’s pistol.

What he brings to an awards ceremony is guaranteed to create as lasting a memory for the athletes who make the podium as it does for the audience.

Smith didn’t get the chance to do what he does best this year. When the AIA made the call to move the awards podium – basically hide it from the audience -- they also decided to take the microphone away from Smith and make the awards announcements themselves.

The best track and field public address announcer in the United States, Smith was basically reduced to reading out lane assignments before each race.

The athletes were cheated.

Ditto for the thousands of people who came to watch the state track and field championships.

Makes you wonder if the folks who have ultimate authority over track and field in Arizona know anything at all about the sport.

This week, we’ll see another false start by the AIA.

The one involves the annual Arizona Meet of Champions, which for many years has served as a relaxed and low-key season finale.

This year, it’s being re-fashioned as a “super” state track meet by invitation only to the athletes who turned in the fastest times at last week’s regular state track meet.

First, a little history. The “Meet of Champions” had its first incarnation in Arizona in 1951 as the “Luke Greenway Meet of Champions.” It traditionally took place a week after the divisional state championships that allowed athletes from similar sized schools to contend for state titles.

Each divisional state championship took place in a different part of the Phoenix area. A week later, each “class” state champion and a handful of the fastest runners-up met again at the Luke Greenway meet. This took place for decades when track and field was a male-only sport.

When the AIA sanctioned the sport for girls at the 2A level beginning in 1974, the first girls-only Meet of Champions emerged before the decade’s end. Over time, these boys and girls post-season classics were merged into a combined Meet of Champions.

Also over time, the meet became more of an exhibition affair than any kind of “super” meet pitting all the divisional state champions in head-to-head competition.

Certainly, there were exceptions. The 1974 pre-metric 100-yard dash between Page’s Reggie Edwards, Chandler’s Derique Powell and sophomore upstart Dwayne Evans from South Mountain is considered by many the finest sprint race in Arizona history.

One year later, the 1975 2-mile showdown between Amphi’s David Shoots and Tempe’s Kirk Dobstaff was as thrilling a race as there has ever been in Arizona. Ditto for the 2017 showdown over 800 meters between Rio Rico’s Allie Schadler and Chandler’s Morgan Foster.

But for the most part, the Meet of Champions has been an anticlimactic affair. The kids are tired following the prior week’s state championships. They are physically, mentally and emotionally used up. Many ignore the invitation to come and compete.

Its saving grace has been the relaxed standards and equally relaxed atmosphere that allowed athletes to compete in events different from those they ran at the state championships. It was a streamlined competition that put events such as the tedious and time-consuming 3200 meters on the shelf. Instead of closing the show with the 4X400 relay, the Arizona Meet of Champions featured a non-metric, good old-fashioned mile race. They took a page from the Portland Track Classic and invited all the spectators to come down and circle the track and watch the race up close and personal.

Those who knew the sport best had learned that a high-stakes “super” state track meet one week removed from the real state championships did not work. They adapted and created the perfect kind of relaxed meet to cap off an otherwise stress-filled season.

Now, we’re going back to what we learned from experience doesn’t work all so well. We’re re-inventing the wheel courtesy of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

The same folks who came up with the grand idea of making the state track championships’ awards ceremony a game of hide and seek.

Verde Valley Newspapers Editor Dan Engler is also a volunteer high school track and field coach.

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