Sept. 16, 2005
Columnist George F. Will once observed that football combines two of society's worst elements: violence and meetings. In this sense, track and field is better off than football since it lacks violence. However, team meetings are still a factor in track and without any game plans to discuss or opponents to scout, the meetings are more like motivational seminars that can turn into wastes of time under the wrong guidance.
On Thursday we had our team meeting in preparation for this weekend's competition. Fritz Berger, the men's team manager, gave a long speech to the team. I do not know how motivating he was because I only have a limited knowledge of the Swiss-German dialect. That, combined with his fast cadence, left me with little understanding of what was said. I was only able to catch a few words in reference to the meet's scoring system and the team banquet and dinner that will follow the competition.
For me, this was an occasion to meet my teammates. Some of their faces were very familiar, as I was introduced to many of them at last year's competition, but most of their names escaped my mind. There were many side conversations during the speech, but I did not think that it was the time to talk to others. Instead I stared at the plastic cup in front of me and kept rotating it clockwise in my hands.
After 45 minutes of discussion by Fritz, some other coaches, and the women's team manager, I found out the real reason the attendance was so high at this meeting: free dinner. If there is one type of food that all athletes can agree to like, it is food that is free.
About 40-50 athletes were present at the meeting and we slowly waited in line to be served food. These were the men's and women's `A' squads that will represent ST Bern at Saturday's Swiss Club Championships. Both teams placed second at last year's meet. The women's team has done quite well this season and is one of the favorites to win the title. The men's team, on the other hand, experienced a plague of injuries in the spring that led to a poor semi-final performance. As a result they were relegated to the second league comprised of the fifth- through eighth-best clubs. The team is healthier now, though, and hopes to win without much difficulty and come close to last year's score.
The scoring system for the meet is quite complicated and I will attempt to briefly explain it here. The team score is based the athletes' final result (their distance, time, height, etc.) and not how they place compared to the other team. Originally the scoring was similar to the dual-meet system in the U.S. (scoring based on place), but is was changed a few years ago because the teams were not very deep. Athletes are given a certain number of points for their performance and the team total is calculated by adding each team's 20 highest scores. The system is a little more complicated than this, but that is the basic gist of it.
Fritz was generous and loaded up my plate with two heaping spoonfuls of spaghetti. I took the mountain of pasta, along with some bread and wine, back to my seat. It was interesting to talk to the other athletes about the differences between track and field in the U.S. and Switzerland. For one, they could not believe that the typical American collegiate athlete's season ends in May or June while their season extends until this Saturday.
But there were also many other differences. One big difference is the name -- the sport known as "track and field" in the U.S. is called "athletics" worldwide. While the events are the same, the attitudes and structures behind the sport are opposites. It is not that track and field is much more popular in Bern -- ST Bern does have around 750 members, but most are no longer training full-time and many are young children. Track is little more popular here than in comparably-sized American cities.
The structure is the most noticeable difference. In the U.S. we rely upon the intercollegiate system to provide facilities and develop athletes. In Switzerland, many varied local interests chip in to help provide funding and facilities to the clubs. The interesting aspect of this is that athletes will remain with one club from age fourteen to forty. The elite athletes train alongside emerging stars and provide motivation to the younger children. The continuity in coaching can also produce great results if the coach is experienced.
The biggest problem currently facing ST Bern is a lack of young men in the club. The women have plenty of young athletes, but the men's team is aging and few replacements are coming through the development system. Upon talking to the athletes, they feel part of the problem lies in the number of competing clubs in Bern. Bern, with only 150,000 citizens, has three of the top five clubs in Switzerland. Zurich, on the other hand, with nearly half a million citizens, also has three clubs, only one of which is very competitive. The recruiting battle between the clubs in Bern has left each club very thin on the men's side. At 22 years old, I am one of the youngest members of the `A' squad heading to this weekend's competition.
The competition will take place in Lausanne. Lausanne is the French-speaking portion of Switzerland, lying southwest of Bern on Lake Geneva. The track facility lies next to the International Olympic Committee headquarters and museum. Hammer, as usual, will be the first event. My performances have dropped off slightly since I arrived, but I should be able to achieve a respectable result this weekend and am looking forward to the competition.