Originally posted on www.dmcityview.com by Jim Duncan
The National Junior Olympics came to town last week. Unless you were in a hotel lobby or somewhere around Drake Stadium, you might not have known. It didn’t register with the city’s daily newspaper. The reporters and editors didn’t even mention it in their “Area Events” listings. That’s a pity, because this was one of the grandest tourist events ever in Des Moines. Hotels were packed all week as 14,000 athletes came to town with three times that number of parents, coaches and true sports fans. Downtown Holiday Inn owner Bob Conley said it was that hotel’s “best seven-day period” all year. Jethro’s BBQ executive chef Dom Iannarelli said that store hit an all-time record for its best week.
While many sports were contested in Des Moines, more than 70 percent of the athletes were involved in track and field, which drew 20,000 fans to Drake Stadium on its busiest days. Those crowds made the Drake Relays’ look provincial as an Iowa county fair. The ethnic composition was estimated between 95 percent and 85 percent African American by five different people I asked. It was also overwhelmingly southern. Texas brought more athletes (1,602) than the next two largest contributing states combined. Athletes from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee and Missouri won the most events.
The crowds in the stadium reinforced every cliché ever muttered about superior southern manners. Two large delegations, one from Texas and one from Florida, brought plastic garbage bags and cleaned up their entire sections each day before leaving. I saw that once before, at a baseball game in Japan. Even tired children said things like “excuse me, please” when passing. People talked to strangers sitting near them, then went out to the Drake campus to share a picnic or some lemonade in the shade. An insurance executive “with a track habit” told me, people were so surprised to see a white guy in their section that they asked him what he was doing there. Because he was embarrassed about not being at work, he replied “college scouting.” Two guys in front of him asked, “You do know these are 8 years old?”
The events ran as if Navy Seals were organizing things. In all, 516 track and field events were contested. The number of heats ranged from an astonishing 527 on Tuesday to 111 on the second Saturday. Tuesday’s races were run over 12 hours. That averages out to one race every minute and 20 seconds.
I asked several folks why this sport is dominated, at least in the 8-18 age groups, by African Americans. Several told me the same thing — black kids particularly are attracted to sports without politics or prejudice. “Run the fastest, you win; jump the highest or farthest, you win. Nobody is cheating you on playing time, or playing you out of position. That’s good for the kids. They have no one to blame, so they learn not to whine or shift responsibility.”
Thirty-three national records were set in Des Moines. Vashti Cunningham (daughter for football great Randall Cunningham) broke the oldest, a 32-year-old high jump record for 16-year-olds. Top girls times in most sprint races (up to 400 meters) beat the top boys times until ages 12 or 13, when boys began dominating. I asked fans why. “Puberty. Once that happens, boys are all pumped full of confidence and girls are worried about their bodies,” explained a track mom from Chester, Pennsylvania, with two friends nodding in agreement.
Everyone I talked to said really nice things about Des Moines. Negative comments were reserved for the newspaper’s lack of acknowledgement. “In other cities, we buy a special section every day and save them for decades,” said a track dad from Houston.
Hopefully The Des Moines Register will rethink this when the Junior Olympics return to Des Moines in four years. Or maybe a certain alternative newsweekly will.
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