Last month Chicago's Olympic planners announced that they were going to ask Barack Obama and Michael Jordan to court the International Olympic Committee on behalf of the city's bid to host the 2016 summer games. I have a better idea for our town's biggest celebrities: forget the Olympics and give Conrad Worrill a call.
Worrill is a south-side community activist and Northeastern Illinois University history professor who's teamed up with developer Elzie Higginbottom to revitalize track and field in Chicago. They'll need all the help they can get, from celebrities and anyone else they can win over, because the task they face is overwhelming.
As any coach will tell you, a vigorous track and field program has the potential to keep kids in school. But despite all the raw talent in this city, we're dropping the ball. There are next to no Park District or elementary feeder programs for track and field. If you're going to learn the techniques of running, jumping, or throwing the discus, your parents had better be wealthy enough to pay the fees charged by a youth traveling team, which are mostly in the burbs. Otherwise, you're out of luck.
So most kids show up for high school without a clue about the finer aspects of the sport. They don't know how to use starting blocks or hand off batons. They can't run the hurdles or do the high jump or long jump. As a result there are a lot of kids who don't even try the sport and never realize how good they could be at it. "The city has a large pool of talent it's not developing," says Worrill. "Many of these kids wind up on the street."
Even the city's track powerhouses—Lane Tech, Whitney Young, Morgan Park, and Mather—are at a huge disadvantage, because though the winter season runs from January through March, there's not a single public indoor track facility anywhere in the city. High school runners and hurdlers are forced to train in school hallways, while other athletes fight for practice time in overcrowded gyms. When the CPS holds its one and only winter track meet, it rents the facility at Proviso West in Hillside ($9,000) or at the University of Chicago ($7,000). "That they want to stage the Olympics here and then they don't have one goddamn indoor stadium for these kids is outrageous," says Worrill. "This is a goddamn contradiction."
Indoor facilities are common in the suburbs. So while Chicago's runners are pounding the hell out of their knees, shins, and ankles running on hard, slippery hallways, the kids in the suburbs are gearing up for the state championship on state-of-the-art rubber tracks. "It's insane that we're running in hallways—it's criminal," Worrill says. "You can't build a program running in hallways. The rest of the world's passing us by."
The results can be seen in the performances. With the exception of a handful of outstanding sprinters, Chicago's public school runners, throwers, and jumpers fall well behind the state leaders.
Why does it matter? It's not that track and field in and of itself will stop young people from killing one another, but it does have the potential to give students something to strive for. "You don't have to be a superstar to excel in track and field—that's not the point," says Worrill, who ran track at Hyde Park High School. "The training is a discipline.... You can use the sport to give you a reason to stay in school, to stay focused, to get an education."
Higginbottom says that's how track worked for him. A state champion in the 440 at south-suburban Bloom Township High School, he won a four-year athletic scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his success drew the attention of William Nathanson, a track fan who was also a prominent Chicago attorney. "Mr. Nathanson hooked me up for a summer job with Baird & Warner, and that started my career," Higginbottom says. "I was too short to play basketball and too small to play football, so track was just right."
Last year Worrill and Higginbottom formed Friends of Track and Field. Their purpose is to shame, schmooze, or do whatever it takes to convince city leaders to build indoor facilities, reinstitute a Park District or elementary feeder program, and start a summer program.
Higginbottom, a major political donor, is a player, but it's still an uphill battle. Many coaches had hoped to get at least a track facility out of the Olympics quest. But so far Chicago 2016 has raised roughly $40 million to bring the games here, with nothing for the local schools except a few photo ops with famous athletes.
At the moment the city doesn't seem to be in a hurry to fortify the program either. School officials tell me it's the Park District's fault we don't have any indoor tracks, Park District officials tell me it's the schools' fault, and both sides pretty much admit they're reluctant to make a move without City Hall's OK. But Mayor Daley has taken no action even as he presses on with his Olympics bid.
It might seem odd to single out track and field when you consider all the inadequacies the public schools suffer in, say, the realm of arts education. But if the city's going to shell out millions in property taxes to host three weeks of games for the world's top athletes, they ought to kick in a little something for the local runners and jumpers, if only for the sake of PR.
On April 18 Higginbottom and Worrill will hold a banquet and reception for high school athletes at Kennedy-King College. And on April 19 they're sponsoring the Windy City Classic, a track meet featuring high school teams from throughout the area.
"Ironically, Mayor Daley's father was a big supporter of track, so let's get on it,' says Worrill. "What we need is a movement. How many more generations are we going to waste?"v