LANE ONE: Coverage of U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials shows protests are perceived as more important than performances

Sydney McLaughlin's world record in the 400 m hurdles was barely noticed by news media (Photo: Tim Healy for TrackTown USA)

(★ Friends: Thank you! Now 21 donors have covered 28% of our new bill for server and support costs. Your help is needed: please donate here. Your enthusiasm is why this site continues. Thank you. ★)

(For our Highlights of major international competitions, click here)
(For Sunday’s U.S. Olympic Trials coverage: click for Athletics and Gymnastics)

/Updated 6/29/2021: see below/If you are a track & field fan who thinks the sport has a chance to once again raise its profile and popularity in the U.S., guess again.

Last Saturday (26th) was a brilliant day for the sport at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, despite temperatures of up to 101 degrees. Consider:

● World Champion DeAnna Price set two American Records in the women’s hammer;

● World Champion Grant Holloway (12.81) and Worlds runner-up Rai Benjamin (46.83) ran the second-fastest times ever in the men’s 110 m and 400 m hurdles;

Gabby Thomas ran the fastest women’s 200 m in 33 years and the third-fastest time in history in 21.61, and

● Teenager Erriyon Knighton won his semi in the men’s 200 m in 19.88, beating World Champion Noah Lyles and erasing Jamaican legend Usain Bolt’s World U-20 Record of 19.93 from 2004.

But Eddie Pells of The Associated Press – the world’s largest and most important news agency – wrote a widely-distributed review of the day mostly about hammer throw third-placer Gwen Berry turning away from the U.S. flag when the national anthem was played at its scheduled time, which coincided with the women’s hammer awards ceremony. Wrote Pells:

“Berry’s reaction to the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ was as notable as anything on the track on a blazing-hot Saturday, the second-to-last day at trials.”

Headlined “Message sent: Berry turns away from flag during anthem,” 18 of the 24 paragraphs in the story were about Berry’s protest, the circumstances and reaction. Price got two paragraphs for winning the hammer, Thomas one, and everybody else was noted in another paragraph. The story had no mention of Holloway, but may have been expanded later /see update below/.

Embed from Getty Images

A companion story provided 3-6 paragraph summaries of each event, updated during the day.

On Sunday, more of the same, with Pells sending short reports of each event on a day when Sydney McLaughlin broke the world record in the women’s 400 m hurdles and world-leading marks were made by heptathlete Annie Kunz, women’s 800 m winner Athing Mu and men’s 200m winner Lyles.

This is where track & field, and almost all of the other Olympic-program sports are in the U.S. today. The sports themselves – with some exceptions, such as Simone Biles in gymnastics, the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams and the U.S. women’s football team – are irrelevant, and the focus is on which athletes protest, when and how and what the reactions are or will be.

Berry won the women’s hammer at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru and raised her fist during the playing of the national anthem, drawing a sanction from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee for violating the terms of the agreement she signed prior to the event to obey its rules. Later, the sanction was withdrawn and an apology was made and the USOPC now allows “non-divisive” demonstrations at the Trials and the Olympic Games.

American fencer Race Imboden took a knee during the victory ceremony for the men’s Team Foil at the Pan Am Games and received the same treatment. Since then, that’s where the attention has gone, regardless of the performances on the field.

The AP reported on 20 June of Lyles raising a partially-gloved fist when he was introduced for the final of the 100 meters, with reporter Pat Graham writing:

“In what went down as the first notable demonstration of the track trials, Lyles made a subtle gesture, wearing a black glove — minus the fingers — on his left hand, and raising his fist when he was introduced before the race.”

On 24 June, the AP’s Pells wrote a 20-paragraph story titled, “Berry opens at Olympic Trials: ‘I want to impact the world.’” There was one paragraph about the women’s shot put final and a mention of Emma Coburn’s win in the women’s Steeplechase and Allyson Felix qualifying for the women’s 200 m final. Twelve paragraphs were about Berry.

Expect much more of the same once the Olympic Games begin in Tokyo next month.

Let’s be clear about two things:

● Protests in the style of Tommie Smith and John Carlos from 1968 are now allowed by the USOPC and Berry, Lyles and others can do so if they wish. For better or worse, it’s within the rules now.

● Pells, a 28-year veteran of The Associated Press, is not to be faulted for covering the U.S. Track & Field Trials as he sees fit. He describes himself as “Fast, flexible, fair and creative.” No argument.

But his coverage and the modest attendance of non-endemic news media at the Trials in Eugene show where track & field is today in the public’s eye. In the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper historically friendly to track & field, Saturday’s events received 15 short lines in Sunday’s print edition in “The Day in Sports” round-up section. Today’s paper covered Sunday’s heroics in all of 22 lines, plus nine lines noting the heat delay and that heptathlete Taliyah Brooks was “carted off the field in a wheelchair,” with an accompanying photograph.

The final day of the U.S. Trials in women’s gymnastics received the entire top third of the same page, with a photograph of superstar Biles and a reported-on-site story from Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott.

It’s worth noting that this “Olympic sport” coverage was on page seven of an eight-page section, following a front-page story on Tokyo Olympics-bound skateboarder (!) Nyjah Huston and heavy coverage of baseball’s Dodgers and Angels, the Clippers-Suns NBA playoff series, the NHL Stanley Cup final, golf and the Drew League summer basketball series.

The Olympic Trials did well on television, but look which sports did best on NBC on average viewers per hour:

● 4.990 million viewers avg.: Gymnastics (5 hours)
● 2.732 million viewers avg.: Swimming (11 hours)
● 2.545 million viewers avg.: Track & Field (8 hours)
● 2.076 million viewers avg.: Diving (3 hours)

Is it any wonder that NBC pushes women’s gymnastics – all of the viewers above are for the women’s Trials only, which won all of its hours against the other networks – and swimming harder than track & field? (Cable ratings will not be available for a few days, but will be shared later.)

The fall of track & field and the other Olympic-focused sports in the U.S. has been going on for a long time, despite their dominance at the once-a-quadrennial Olympic Games. There are high hopes of a revival, especially for track & field, in the run-up to the 2028 Games in Los Angeles and with the World Athletics Championships coming to Eugene a year from now.

But if so, there will have to be a reawakening around these sports, or even coverage (and interest) of the protests will disappear. And as for 2028, the third Los Angeles Games may have no more impact – or legacy – than as a summertime, pop-up Disneyland or Universal Studios: something to do to say you did it. And nothing more.

Berry told reporters at the Trials that track & field is only the stage for her activism. Where are the activists for her sport?

Rich Perelman

Update 6/29/2021: Eagle-eyed reader Alan Mazursky noted that the link to the original AP story went inactive, and the story was updated later in the day. Where the original story included “[Gwen] Berry’s reaction to the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ was as notable as anything on the track on a blazing-hot Saturday,” the updated version read, “Berry’s reaction to the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ took its fair share of the spotlight on a blazing-hot second-to-last day at trials that also featured some blazing-fast times.”

This was followed by four paragraphs of competition highlights – up from two in the original – which did expand on Thomas’s 21.61 win in the women’s 200 m, added Holloway’s 12.81 semifinal win, just 0.01 off the world record, and Knighton’s win over Lyles in the men’s 200 m semis, in a World U-20 Record of 19.88.

The updated story was 25 paragraphs instead of 24, with the same 18 paragraphs about Berry’s protest, the circumstances and reaction, two about hammer winner Price and five about the other seven events in the afternoon and evening session.

You can receive our exclusive TSX Report by e-mail by clicking here. You can also refer a friend by clicking here, and can donate here to keep this site going.

For our 649-event International Sports Calendar for 2021 and beyond, by date and by sport, click here!