As spring sports wound down, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) was all but shooting off fireworks to celebrate the return of players – at last – in full force to fields across America. It was a triumph that was a long time coming and was every bit as much a victory as the championship celebrations playing out nationwide. And with sports predicted to lead the rebound, at the macro level first, it appears the prognostications are coming true.
With school years coming to a close, lacrosse, baseball and softball took center stage – but nothing could really compare to the numbers being posted by one of the oldest sports in history: track and field.
“Outdoor track and field is the top combined participatory sport at the high school level, with 605,354 boys and 488,267 girls involved in the sport rich in state championship history,” noted Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive officer of the NFHS, just prior to the Memorial Day weekend. “Several state associations are into their second century of state meets in track and field, and competition – and attendance – is off to a great start.”
A release from NFHS noted the following:
“In Iowa, where its first state high school track meet was held in 1906, a record three-day attendance of 39,415 was set last weekend in Des Moines as the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union staged another successful event.
In a state that has produced many record track performances since conducting its first boys state meet in 1911, the Texas University Interscholastic League completed another outstanding event May 12-14. Flower Mound High School took home top honors as the Class 6A girls champion, led by distance runner Natalie Cook who won both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters.
Four states with even longer track and field histories are set to begin state meets in the coming days. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) staged its 102nd State Track Meet after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
In a meet that annually draws more than 20,000 spectators to Buchanan High School in Clovis, the CIF State Track Meet has produced a Who’s Who of competitors over the years, including Allyson Felix, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Misty May-Treanor, Bobby Bonds, Lynn Swann, Reggie Bush and many others.
In a meet that began in 1908, the Ohio High School Athletic Association will hold its 114th Boys State Track Meet, as well as its 47th Girls State Meet June 3-4 at Jesse Owens Stadium in Columbus.
However, the true granddaddies of high school track and field are Wisconsin and Illinois. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, after being shut out in 2020 and delayed to nearly July last year held its 126th State Track Meet June 3-4 in La Crosse.
In Illinois, where the first state track meet was contested in 1893, the Illinois High School Association conducted its three-day event at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.”
These numbers are likely music to the ears of NFHS, which in 2019 recorded its first decline in sports participation nationwide in nearly 20 years, and then missed the following two years.
Additionally, noted US News & World Report, “additional data reported by the Aspen Institute shows that 44 percent of families said their community-based sports programs had closed, merged with another program, or returned with a lower capacity limit due to COVID.”
And this, the article noted, was an enormous problem for those who depended on those programs, including children of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And even though sports can be viewed as a way out by parents and kids alike, the reality is that only a small number of children earn athletic scholarships or become professional athletes.
Since the only high school sports that played a full season in 2020 were those in the fall, football was actually a bright spot for NFHS, showing signs of beginning to pull out of the slide it had been in. (If NFHS releases participation figures for the 2021-2022 school year, it is likely we will see a corresponding turnaround for other sports – although it may be some time until all figures are back to pre-COVID levels).