Everything has to start someplace. Historians will note that the revival of track and field in the United States began Wednesday, April 20, 2011, right here in Lawrence, on Eighth Street, 80 feet or so east of New Hampshire.
And about 2,500 curiosity-seekers can say they witnessed it.
The guys who will bring back the sport’s popularity won’t do it on fields inside the boundaries of all-weather tracks. They’ll do it at venues built for a day at downtown sites, just like the one constructed Wednesday and scheduled for dismantling this morning.
Shot putters are easy to spot. They’re the men whose arms make Popeye’s look like twigs. They have tree trunks where most men have necks. Not only that, they have personalities. They like to tell their stories, enjoy signing autographs and even openly recruit spectators to pump up the volume. Think Tiger Woods. Now think total opposite. They’ll be the guys to bring back the sport by taking it to the people.
Credit Kansas Relays director Milan Donley for coming up with the idea of having the nation’s first downtown shot put — inspired by the success of similar European shows — and for joining hands with the city of Lawrence to seamlessly execute a smart plan.
If I could have lost a pound for every time I heard while having a nice sidewalk dinner on Mass Street someone say what a great time they had at the shot-put show, I could start training to run in marathons today.
Kudos to the world-class field for accepting smaller appearance fees (the highest were $8,000) and a smaller purse ($1,000 to winner Dylan Armstrong) than they get in Europe. The pay will grow in step with the popularity. These guys get that.
People stood eight- to 10-deep along both sides of the street. Spectators from nearby buildings opened second- and third-story windows to take in the action.
Such a smashing debut means sponsors will line up to back the event a year from now, should Donley manage to pull it off again.
The crowd, which at first didn’t understand that it didn’t have to behave as if it were witnessing Tiger standing over a three-foot putt, was brought out of its shell by Adam Nelson, the veteran whose trademark is to rip off his warm-up shirt before every put of the shot. He exhorted the spectators to get louder by cupping his ear and raising his arms.
One man catching the action from a second-story window rooted loudly for the aptly named Armstrong — his right arm is strong — and at one point hollered, “Throw it like it’s a ping-pong ball. Wait a minute, a ping-pong ball wouldn’t go very far. Never mind.”
Later, that same man could be seen getting Armstrong to autograph one of the three $5 bills he won by selecting the winner in an impromptu draft he had with a couple of buddies. After about the fifth time the man said, “Thanks, Adam,” Armstrong finally corrected him: “Hey, man, my name is Dylan.”
Oh well, while knowledge lacked, passion did not. As for vibrant downtown Lawrence, it made for the pluperfect place for Day 1 of track and field’s return to prominence.