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The Millrose Games

My daughter, my nephew and I were on our way to a Knicks game a few seasons back when we stopped by my mother’s apartment for a quick visit. As we were leaving, I asked her if she’d like to join us since we had an extra ticket. She declined before adding, “But I’d love to go The Millrose Games if I’m still alive.”

It was the last thing she’d ever say to me face to face. We spoke on the phone afterward, but I didn’t see my mother again until a massive stroke robbed her of speech and consciousness for the last few weeks of her life. That was December, 2008. The Games went on without her several weeks later.

The most celebrated indoor track meet in the world has, in fact, gone on uninterrupted since before her birth having begun its run at Madison Square Garden in 1914 after a few years as a private event for the employees of Wanamaker Stores. This week, the New York Times reported that, despite the financial support of USA Track & Field, the organizers are set to take the event off its palatial stage and move it uptown to the 4,000 seat Armory Track Center in 2012. If we hadn’t cremated her, Elizabeth Goldberg would be rolling over in her grave.

To be clear, my mother was hardly a track and field fan. She knew the Olympic heroes by name, but hadn’t a clue about the rank and file or the nuances of the various events. However, she loved the artistry and essence of the sport. Over several decades, she had learned there was no place in the world to breathe that essence like the once-a-winter Friday evening that The Millrose Games came to The Garden.

Equal parts track meet, spectacle and social event, the Millrose focal point is the steeply banked, 12-laps-to-the mile track that Steve Ovett compared to “running around the inside of a bathtub”. The regulars can no doubt close their eyes at any time and hear the unique sound produced from feet pounding those boards and the occasional gasp and thud of a runner failing to negotiate the turn and going “over the edge”.

But there are so many other peculiarities associated with staging a world class track meet in a basketball arena situated at the crossroads of a teeming metropolis. For one, the athletes are often forced below the crowd and in to Penn Station where – only in New York – Olympic titans blend largely unnoticed with straggling commuters and “bridge and tunnel” partiers as they compete for a spot to stretch, warm up and pace off the time until their event is called. Back inside, the space limitations force the field events in to cramped corners and a taller sprinter risks decapitation as he passes the finish line and enters the tunnel underneath the 7th Avenue stands before crashing into a padded wall to stop.

There is also a wonderfully strange formality about the proceedings. The P.A. introduces participants with a mini-biography more suited to the theater. And the officials populating the infield seem to be channeling Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy by wearing tuxedos simply because it’s after six o’clock on a Friday.

But my mom came for the celebration of athleticism that marries power, speed and grace like no other event on earth. She wanted seats that afforded her a clear view of the high jump and pole vault. She enjoyed the running events, but the jumps made her heart soar. Even though the men’s high jump champion was sometimes settled after midnight, the competition held her rapt and she would acquire a favorite as the night went on. Her first love was Lincoln Center and the New York City Ballet. But, on Millrose night, she was equally captivated by the balletic nature of the men and women who flew through The Garden air.

For all its unique trappings and traditions the event also brings the city everything that is good about its sport. Track and Field’s role in the Civil Rights movement is significant beginning with Jesse Owens staring down Hitler in Berlin and culminating with John Carlos and Tommie Smith challenging their own country from the medal stand in Mexico City. Women track stars were celebrated decades before Title IX, the WNBA or The Women’s World Cup. Not only were Wilma Rudolph, Mary Decker and Jackie Joyner-Kersee as prominent as their male counterparts, but their position helped pioneer a new, stronger brand of femininity. The sport also honors the ages often featuring races for High School, College and Masters competitors on the same program as the elite runners.

Track stars have included the witty (when asked how it is possible for his small country to have four of the top ten milers in the world, Irishman Eamonn Coghlan shrugged and quipped, “When Irish Guys are Miling … ”), the flamboyant (the fashion-first Flo Jo could match any NFL wide receiver in self-branding) and the urbane (Briton Sebastian Coe once described his relationship with his coach as “a voyage of mutual discovery”). But, at its core, it’s a sport of the people requiring little in the way of equipment and facilities to get started. Track’s biggest stars have emerged from among African tribesman, Aboriginal Australians and Ivy League students as well as the more typical sports breeding grounds.

Even today, track is the number one participatory sport for American high school girls and second only to football among boys. Unlike most sports, not even the newest fan is confused at a track meet. The competitors race against each other. The first one to the finish line wins. We’re practically born understanding that concept. That’s why I’ve always believed that the 100 meter world record and the title of “World’s Fastest Human” is the most important in sports. The shortest dash is about one thing only – running as fast as you can. And that is something we’ve all tried to do. Every able-bodied person on the planet, at some point, has run as fast as they could. So, when an athlete like Usain Bolt lowers that record, he literally rises above us all.

Still, the sport is dying in America and it is not likely to be saved. It is being killed by the same forces that have damaged all sports: greed, selfishness and a hierarchy that serves the superstar athlete first and the fans last. This sport’s death has one unusual and ironic contributing factor worth noting. It has deep self-inflicted wounds from its governing bodies’ early insistence on running a clean sport and vigilantly identifying and punishing steroid cheats. If Bud Selig ran USA Track & Field or the International Olympic Committee, it’s a safe bet that the superhuman feats of people like Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Ben Johnson would have kept the sport in the public eye and maybe even saved The Millrose Games.

Despite that, if the sport has any chance to survive in America, The Millrose must be embraced as part of the solution and not part of the problem. When I graduated college, I could walk up to the box office on game day and buy a Knicks-Celtics ticket. But nobody could get me in to the Millrose Games. My parents first took me after the Munich Olympics to see the returning medalists. I became a regular when I served as Sports Information Director at Manhattan College and later when I was part of the group that created the Foot Locker Athletic Club; an elite team whose members included Mike Powell, Mike Conley Sr., Dan O’Brien and Gail Devers. It never failed to be one of the best nights of the year.

The crowds have dwindled in recent years and tickets are readily available. The paying diehards are dominated by Wall Streeters who get faster each year in their beer-sotted memories. But the product remains pure. The venue remains special. The tradition unmatched. It is still the same basic event that appealed to my mother’s Lincoln Center sensibilities and also captivated my young daughter who was amazed by the fact that so many of the competitors actually wound up in the stands among the fans as the night wore on.

They loved the event and its pageantry. I loved the competition. I saw Carl Lewis challenge gravity at the Millrose. I was on the infield dumbfounded as a UGA sophomore named Herschel Walker won a heat despite being so big he barely fit in his lane. I cheered for Mary Decker, Greg Foster, and Diane Dixon. My mom loved the pretty boys and the acrobats: Dwight Stones, Patrick Sjoberg, Billy Olson and Sergei Bubka. And I still get chills recalling Coghlan – the incomparable Chairman of the Boards – race to his seventh Wanamaker Mile title as if propelled by the deafening MSG crowd; as loud as it ever got for Ewing’s Knicks or St. Johns vs. Georgetown.

But, most of all, I treasure my mother’s exhilaration at the competitive grace on display in front of her. I remember each of the years I got to share that with her.

Times change. Tastes evolve. Traditions die. But some are worth saving and none should die solely of neglect. The Millrose Games deserves a reprieve. With the support already pledged from USA Track & Field, the organizers need to let the event reach its hundredth year at MSG before assessing its fate. They need to fill every seat in The Garden. Ten dollars, five dollars, two dollars; it doesn’t matter. They need to share the magic with those who’ve never seen it and let it grow from there.

A track meet at the Armory Track Center is not The Millrose Games and pretending otherwise is tantamount to quietly signing a DNR instead of admitting the patient has died.

New York, a city that demands the best, should not take this lying down. You may not have seen it for yourself, but this is an event like no other. The Millrose Games need to be preserved. For my mother’s sake and the entertainment of generations of New Yorkers to come, I hope The Millrose Games live to be 200.


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