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Analysis : A Decade of Decline for City Track : Waning Popularity, Athletic Specialization Contribute to Sport’s Plight

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Steve Caminiti of Reseda High noticed the phenomenon several years ago, but it wasn’t until the state track and field championships at Cerritos College last month that he realized just how far the quality of performances in the City Section had dropped in recent years.

Caminiti, a co-coach at Reseda since 1985, was watching the qualifying round in the boys’ shotput when he heard coaches from other sections joking about the City putters, some of whom were throwing 46 and 47 feet while the majority of the other throwers had puts of 53 feet or better.

“I was appalled at first,” Caminiti said. “I felt like getting up and telling them where to stick it. But when I thought about it later, I realized that I probably would have done the same thing if I were a coach from another section.

“I mean, a kid throwing 47 feet in the shot has no business being in the state meet.”

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Neither does a kid who has run 11.17 seconds in the 100, 15.24 in the 110-meter high hurdles or cleared 6 feet, 4 inches in the high jump.

But those were qualifying marks of some City participants in this year’s meet.

And the future doesn’t look much brighter. This wasn’t just a down year in City track but rather a continuation of a trend that began to manifest itself in the middle of the decade.

Although the City continues to produce its share of great track and field athletes--Quincy Watts of Taft, Bryan Bridgewater of Washington and Angela Rolfe of Dorsey won a combined seven state titles from 1986 to ’89--the quantity of elite athletes has declined dramatically.

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“I remember when a school having multiple sub-11-second sprinters wasn’t that big a deal,” Caminiti said. “And that was when kids were running mostly on dirt tracks. Now if a guy runs 10.9 on a tartan track--which is a faster surface--he’s a stud. He’s one of the best in the City.”

Cal State Northridge Coach Don Strametz, who coached at Locke High from 1974-79, agreed with Caminiti, using the high hurdles as an example.

“When I was at Locke, we had six guys who ran 14.5 or faster one year,” Strametz said. “Now, if you run under 15, you’re one of the best in the City. A kid ran 14.7 and won City this year.

“At Locke, if you only ran 14.4 or 14.5, most people assumed that you must only be a sophomore.”

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Statistics support Caminiti’s and Strametz’s claims.

Based on statistics compiled by averaging the marks of the top six finishers in each event in the past 10 City championships, 1989 was the worst year in six of the 15 boys’ events.

The worst marks of the decade were recorded in the 100 and 800 meters, 110 high and 300 intermediate hurdles, 400 relay and shotput.

And bottom-five averages were recorded in the 200, 1,600 relay, high jump, long jump and triple jump.

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The 3,200 meters (average of 9 minutes, 23.44 seconds) was the only event in which a decade best was posted.

In eight of the 15 events--including four of five field events--the best averages of the decade were posted before 1985, even though until 1983 the City finals were held on dirt tracks, which are notoriously slow compared to the synthetic surface at Birmingham High, site of the past seven City championships.

“Certain events are really getting bad,” Caminiti said. “Especially in the technical events such as the hurdles and field events.”

Several factors--ranging from the sport’s declining popularity to stricter academic eligibility requirements to the demise of the multiple-sport athlete--have contributed to City track and field’s decline.

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Strametz, who guided Locke to the boys’ City title in 1979, said that track’s diminishing appeal might be the biggest culprit in its demise.

“There is a large majority of the sporting population that doesn’t know anything about track,” Strametz said. “They’ve never been exposed to it, therefore, they’re not going to know whether or not they like it. And you can’t get a kid to compete in a sport he knows nothing about.”

Strametz added that television’s limited coverage of track also has greatly hurt the sport.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, track meets were on TV all the time,” Strametz said. “Back then, a kid could watch the U. S.-U. S. S. R. meet or the AAU or NCAA championships on a Saturday afternoon. Now, TV covers very few meets and the ones they do cover--such as the NCAA--are taped. . . . And who wants to watch a meet that happened two weeks ago?”

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This doesn’t mean that track has ever been as popular in the United States as football, baseball or basketball, but the disparity in popularity between them has grown in recent years.

Coaches like Caminiti and Scott King of Birmingham frequently have to recruit athletes for the track team.

“It use to be that you couldn’t keep them away,” said Caminiti, who was an assistant track coach at Crespi for seven seasons before coming to Reseda. “But now, you’ve got to go and hustle the kids to get them to compete. Every year, it seems to get a little bit harder to get them to come out. It’s like pulling teeth.”

King often recruits students from his physical education classes--a tactic that Strametz used extensively at Locke--but even that is becoming less productive because physical education is no longer a mandatory part of the City curriculum.

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Today’s high school student must complete just four semesters of physical education to graduate. Therefore, kids frequently take physical education for the first two years and then stop, which deprives coaches of some good potential athletes, according to King.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “You know there are some good athletes out there, but you can’t always find them.”

Even if a coach does find the potential athlete on campus, the athletes frequently are not eligible under the City’s academic guidelines, which require that any student who takes part in an extracurricular activity must maintain a C average with no failing grades.

“That rule is just killing a lot of kids,” said Monroe boys’ Coach Dean Balzarett, who has been at the Sepulveda school for 22 years. “There are a lot of good athletes out there who just don’t have the grades to compete.”

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If that was true, however, other sports would have shown a similar decline and that hasn’t happened, making it a problem unique to track.

Another unique obstacle City coaches face is busing. King claims that it has played a part in the decline of City track because an athlete doesn’t feel loyal to a school that’s outside his neighborhood.

“Half the time, you don’t know whether or not the kid will be back the next season,” King said. “You might work with a kid for two or three years and then find out he decided to go to another school for his senior year.”

Greg Peppers is a good example of this. Peppers was bused to Birmingham as a sophomore and junior but transferred to Washington for his senior year and won City titles in the 100 and 200 in 1980.

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“It’s hard to plan ahead for next season when you don’t know whether or not the kid is coming back,” King said.

Increasing specialization in sports also has hurt City track, which historically has relied on multisport athletes for much of its talent.

The 1975-76 San Fernando High team is a case in point. After winning the City title in football in the fall, the Tigers came back to win the track title in the spring, powered by hurdler Charles White and sprinters Kevin and Ray Williams, all of whom were running backs in the Tigers’ wishbone attack.

White, in fact, posted a national best of 36.0 seconds in winning the City 330-yard low hurdles title that year.

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But with football, baseball and basketball developing into year-round endeavors, track coaches are getting less multisport athletes.

“It’s really gotten out of control,” Balzarett said. “The football kids at Monroe are no longer going out for track. They’re spending all their free time in the spring in the weight room.

“It use to be that the running backs and wide receivers would be the sprinters and hurdlers and the linemen would be the shotputters. But you’re seeing less and less of that now.”

King saw evidence of specialization at Poly when he coached there from 1980 through ’88.

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“The football and baseball coaches latched onto the kids and just keep them for themselves,” King said. “If the kid wanted to go out for track, the coach told him that he wouldn’t get to start next season.”

The late start--and consequently the short length--of the City track season also has hampered the sport, especially in the hurdles and field events where technique is all important.

Because the City does not permit after-school track practice until the start of the second semester--usually the first week in February--City athletes are woefully behind their Southern Section counterparts in conditioning when they start competing in March.

And when they finally start to catch up, the season is coming to a close.

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“In a lot of ways, the City Section is still in the dark ages,” Caminiti said. “It’s impossible to teach a kid the proper fundamentals of the hurdles or the long jump, for instance, in less than three months. It seems like right when the kid starts to get the hang of it, the season is over.”

Another factor mentioned by coaches was the broad interests of today’s youth.

“The kids of today’s generation just have so many interests outside of athletics,” Balzarett said. “It just may be the result of living in the L. A. basin. They’ve got computers, VCRs, cable TV, MTV and all kinds of things. Sports are just not as important to kids as they use to be.”

The outspoken Caminiti was more critical of today’s youth than Balzarett.

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“You just don’t see the same intensity in today’s kids,” he said. “You don’t see the need to excel. In a lot of ways, they’re lazy.”

Whatever the reasons, City track and field is in trouble.

King said that the first step in reversing the trend is to introduce kids to the sport at a young age, before they get attached to other sports such as baseball or football.

“Right now, a lot of kids are getting siphoned off to other sports before they even know what track is all about,” King said.

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Strametz added that high school coaches must take the initiative and create interest in the sport.

“More coaches have to beat the bushes,” Strametz said. “I don’t think there’s a lack of talent out there. I think you could go to any school in the City and find good track athletes if you look hard enough.”


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