It makes no difference how hard they try. They just can’t kill track and field.
Proof came over the weekend, when Athens found itself in the center of the Southeastern Conference universe. Georgia hosted the conference track championships at the beautifully refurbished Spec Towns Track.
Track fans aren’t many anymore, but they’re much. They love their sport with an unwavering passion. They feel nothing beats the essence of competition found in track and field.
It’s that basic competition which we first discovered as children. Who can run the fastest? Jump the highest? Throw the farthest? What could be purer than that?
Sadly, just about anything, once the purity of the sport is destroyed by performance enhancing drugs, an epidemic which threatened to destroy the entire sport.
Give the sport credit for policing itself, cleaning itself up, and ridding itself of notorious miscreants such as Marion Jones. The larger battle remains: image rehabilitation and popularity restoration.
Had you been in Athens Sunday for the final day of competition, you’d have to agree that track is making a comeback. Fans packed the grandstands, lined the backstretch in front of Lumpkin Street, and surrounded the east curve in raucous support of the high jumpers.
A crowd even gathered along Pinecrest Drive, atop the hill at the west end of the track — on the outside of the fence — to catch glimpses of the runners as they sped past.
The crowd proved enthusiastic and supportive as well, offering the standard rhythmic clapping for the jumpers, and the collective “oooooooh!” if a runner made a big move on the backstretch.
It was a crowd thoroughly entertained by a group of athletes who collectively comprise the best collegiate track conference in the country. The competition proved outstanding.
The Arkansas iron man, Dorian Ulrey, copped the SEC Commissioner’s Trophy as the high scorer among men by tallying 25 points. Ulrey doubled, winning the 800 and the 1,500, and then added a fourth place finish in the 5,000.
Ulrey led the Razorbacks to a 1-2-3-7 finish in the 800, good for 26 points, and a 1-2-3 sweep in the 1,500, adding another 24.
That block of points catapulted Arkansas to the men’s team championship with 157.5 points. Florida finished second with 140, Georgia was third with 99, and LSU fourth with 78.
“This is what we came here to do, rack up a lot of points in the 1500 and win the team title,” Ulrey told Zach Lawson, arkansasrazorbacks.com. “It feels good to experience this as a team. We train and push each other all year, and this is what the work amounts to.”
Now, that’s refreshing. The meet’s top scorer is all about the team.
LSU employed dominance in the sprints and hurdles to win the women’s team title with 146 points, followed by Florida (116), Arkansas (107) and Georgia (94).
Semoy Hackett won the 100, finished second in the 200, and ran a leg on the winning 4 x 100 relay team for LSU. That gave her 20.5 points and the Commissioner’s Trophy for being the top scorer on the women’s side.
“I’m proud of everyone here for the way we competed in the meet to win this team title,” Hackett told Will Stafford, LSU Associate SID. For an individual sport, the stars sure do support the team concept.
Other meet highlights included Liz Costello of Tennessee winning the women’s 5,000 and 10,000, with Georgia’s Bridget Lyons right behind her each time. Tennessee’s Ellen Wortham charged down the stretch to catch LSU’s Cassandra Tate in a blistering 400 hurdle final.
The men’s 100 featured a blanket finish won by Terrell Wilks of Florida in 10.11. Seventh place was 10.2. Kirani James of Alabama destroyed the field in the men’s 400 with a quick 44.86.
Typical of the meet’s outstanding performances was that of Georgia triple jumper Maria Augutis. The sophomore from Gothenberg, Sweden, in second place after four jumps, uncorked a winning leap on her fifth attempt. It came within a quarter of an inch of beating her personal best — by a foot.
“This is so incredible!” Augutis said after the meet. “But it’s a perfect day. It’s a great day.”
All track fans would agree.