Keeping track of track and field

by Mellissa Martinez

Six years ago when I began the column Lex in the City, I ran into Pat Yarborough at a COURIER event. She took a long look at me and said, “Are you the same Mellissa Martinez who used to run around the field as a little girl at your dad’s meets? I can’t believe you’re all grown up!” I smiled broadly and we hugged. 

Years later, I am back at the CHS track nearly every week reminiscing as I watch my own teenage son compete for the team. When I look out on the field, I am brought back to my childhood and I can still remember Pat with her bobbed hair whipping in the wind as she took notes and stayed late to watch the completion of the final events. She wasn’t just a reporter; she also loved the sport. 

Dating back to the ancient Greeks, track and field is considered the oldest form of organized sport. Perhaps because of this, it has given us many common idiomatic expressions, such as jump the gun, track record, off to a running start, pass the torch, second wind, take it in stride and toe the line. Although most of these are self-explanatory, toe the line, which has come to mean ‘conscientiously adhere to rules or doctrines,’ is less clear. In fact, it seems that many people think the expression is tow the line. In actuality, it refers to the understanding among athletes that toes must stay behind the line even in those nerve-racking few seconds leading up to the start of the race. Everybody adheres to the rules unless, of course, someone jumps the gun.

There are also many words that exist in the non-sports world that take on entirely new meaning on the track. Consider these: ‘heat’ is a series of qualifying races; ‘kick’ describes the last push of energy at the end of a race; ‘baton’ is the short, hollow tube handed from one runner to another in a relay; ‘leg’ refers to the section run by one runner in a relay event; ‘anchor’ is the last, and hopefully strongest, leg of a relay race; and the announcer ‘calls’ the meet when he or she lists the events over the loudspeaker. This comes from the notion that runners are being ‘called to’ the starting line. 

In the late 1300s, a race was actually called a ‘stadium.’ This stemmed from the Greek stadion ‘a measure of length or running track.’ The Romans also referred to a race as a stadium, which typically referred to one-eighth of a Roman mile or a little over 600 feet. Translations in the Bible call this distance a furlong. Eventually ‘race,’ coming from the Old Norse ras ‘running, rush (of water)’, replaced ‘stadium’ for the act of running. By the 1800s, ‘stadium’ came to mean ‘large, open oval structure with tiers of seats for viewing sporting events.’

The word ‘track’ originally meant ‘a footprint or mark left by anything,’ and comes from Old French trac ‘track of horses or trace.’ Although the sport has not changed much since the time of the ancient Greeks, there are some significant differences. In the 776 Olympic games, male athletes also wrestled, boxed  and competed on horses and in armor. These events, of course, were completed in addition to the ones that remain today: sprints and longer foot races, pole vault, discus, shot put, high jump and long jump to name a few. After all, there are over 20 events in track and field!

Readers may remember that the long jump used to be called the broad jump. When women were admitted into the Olympic games as participants in 1928, they quickly became major competitors in the sport. In 1967, because of the negative association of the word ‘broad’, meaning ‘immoral, coarse or low-class woman,’ the event was officially changed to long jump. 

Even though females were permitted to compete in the 1920s, there were some events that they were not authorized to attempt until very recently. Kids today are shocked to hear that pole vaulting was not a girls’ event back in the olden days when I went to high school, the mid ‘80s. At that time, we simply accepted the fact that women “didn’t have the upper body strength” for such a leap.

Vaulting did not become a full medal event for females in the Olympics until 2000. Now, in a complete turnaround, it has become a major competition in women’s track and field. In fact, much of our country is riveted by female (soon to be Olympian) pole vaulter Allison Stokke. If you have not yet seen this young woman soar over the bar, you will be amazed at her grace and talent. ‘Vault,’ it seems, was always destined for a change—it comes from the Latin volvere ‘to turn around.’

Claremont High School’s track and field has also undergone some changes. Parents are now asked to watch from the bleachers and announcers don’t make jokes or offer running commentary as they call the meets (as my dad was once famous for).

But, last week, when I looked out from the stands and saw Assistant Coach John Thalman with his arm around a student giving a pep talk, my former coach Rich Ede officiating the meet and my dad, Coach Richard Martinez, timing races and encouraging kids, it felt a little bit like the olden days. I’m sure that this scene would have brought a smile to Pat’s face as it did to mine.

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