If you want the facts about track and field records, ask a statistics junkie like E. Garry Hill ’69. But he might throw you with another fact, this one culled from long experience as editor of Track & Field News, announcer at the Olympics and World championships, and expert on the sport: Track and field as a spectator sport is struggling mightily.
Rows and rows of empty seats faced runners and field athletes competing at the Rio Olympics. And where can you watch big track events on TV? Hill calls it like he sees it, and he’s seen a lot since he competed for Washington State University in the ’60s.
“It’s unfortunately gone from being a major sport when I was in college, to a mid-major sport when I started with the magazine, to now being pretty much a niche entity,” he says in his gravelly tone.
Hill points out that lack of presentation, inability to keep up with the marketing of professional team sports like football, and other factors drive down interest in track and field.
He does have a few ideas to reform the sport, which, as a good editor, he’s not afraid to share. Hill has already seen how the sport can thrill watchers and create fans, like when he came to WSU.
Recruited as one of a pipeline of athletes from Canada, Hill came down from Trail, British Columbia, as a triple-jumper for legendary WSU Coach Jack Mooberry in 1965. Unfortunately, Hill was hit with a terrible case of mono just before matriculating. The illness, followed by a string of injuries, didn’t dull his interest in the sport, though.
“My hobby became track and field statistics, much to the detriment of my school work,” says Hill. “I spent all my time reading old issues of Track & Field News, compiling lists, and making predictions.”
Hill remembers Mooberry as a bit of throwback in the changing culture: no sideburns or long hair, and no women in the stands during practice. “At times he was pretty crusty, but he was as honest and open as the day is long. Moo just had a down-home, easy, couldn’t-help-but-love-the-guy persona.”
He also earned his two Gray W letters alongside Cougar legends like runner Gerry Lindgren ’70. Lindgren beat seasoned Soviet runners on national television in 1964 before going to WSU, then set many NCAA records and was one of two runners to beat Steve Prefontaine at the collegiate level.
“They tell tales of the mileage Lindgren put in. People now tend to not believe it. But I saw: You could go over to Bohler morning, noon, or night and he’d be either leaving on a run or coming back from one,” says Hill.
At the end of his WSU days, Hill saw a help-wanted ad for a statistician in one of his favorite magazines, Track & Field News. “This was heaven to me,” he says. “They couldn’t have invented a better job.”
Despite his degree in public health and bacteriology, Hill applied and “much to the chagrin of my advisor, who I gather had me targeted to go and work at a sewage plant in Wenatchee, they hired me.”
Soon after he took the magazine job, the owners asked Hill to start writing. He moved up to managing editor and then editorial duties.
“I studiously avoided taking a class that required writing a term paper, which for someone who ended up in a journalism career was a pretty backwards way to go around it,” he says.
Hill and the business manager bought the Los Altos, California, magazine from founders Bert and Cordner Nelson in 1987.
Earlier, Hill had met Bob Steiner, sports information director at Cal-Berkeley and renowned track and field announcer. The idea intrigued Hill. “I started mimicking Bob in my head. It’s great to have someone explain everything that was going on and not only calling the races, but also throwing in historical data and national relevance for what the marks meant on that day,” he says.
Steiner gave him an announcer gig in 1977 for a big meet at the Cow Palace, and Hill started announcing throughout northern California. A decade later, he started announcing at international meets, leading to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. That was the first of five Olympics for him as an announcer, along with about 10 World Championships in 20 countries, filled with many memorable events that he also cataloged in Track & Field News.
A favorite Olympics moment for Hill was in 2004, when a few days prior to the Athens Games they staged the shot put competitions in the ancient stadium in Olympia a couple of hundred miles away. “The sun came up through part of the ruins and it was one of those spine-tingling moments,” recalls Hill.
“That day was also one of the highlights of my announcing career,” he continues. “We were sitting on an open platform on the hillside overlooking the open field where they were throwing. A German spectator came over during a break in the action and told me how much he appreciated my work, saying, ‘I can understand you better in English than I can understand the announcers in German back home.’”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his many experiences with the sport, Hill has witnessed a slowdown in interest for track and field.
“When I first moved to northern California, there were major meets galore,” he says. “I’d go to a major track meet every weekend.”
But since the 1960s, track and field just hasn’t kept up with team sports with a professional marketing effort. Media, too, have moved away from covering track and field.
“The people who want to save the sport are not realistic. They don’t recognize track’s place in the hierarchy of the sports world. They keep trying to make it into something it’s not,” he says.
To fix it, Hill suggests streamlining track meets by reducing the number of disciplines, which likely means field events, and the amount of down time. “Waiting for them to measure a discus that landed a couple of hundred feet away is hardly twenty-first century entertainment,” he says, despite being more of a field fan than a track fan.
To do that, Hill says it might be best to bring in people who don’t know the sport, but with a keen eye for analyzing what works and what doesn’t.
All is not lost. Even casual fans of track and field have more access to events and competitors through social media. “If you want to follow any big American track and field name on Twitter, they’re there,” says Hill. He also notes that most collegiate events can be seen on streaming video for free, which could drive up the fan base.
It might not reach the past levels of popularity, but to Hill, it’s still been a great run. “It’s been so incredibly rewarding. How many people get to turn their avocation into their vocation?”
Read Garry Hill’s list of top WSU track and field moments.