Fifteen hundred fans crowd the bleachers on a Friday night in Bloomington, Indiana. They're here for the American Track League's debut meet, sure. But really, they're here to see Lolo Jones.
"I thought I'd be used to the cold after the Winter Olympics," Jones says from the stage on the infield, "but I didn't have to compete in Russia half-naked."
This is the Lolo whom America knows: They (and probably you) rooted for her in the 2008 Olympics because of her humble beginnings, in London 2012 because she was the third-most popular virgin in the world (next to The Virgin and Tim Tebow), and this winter because she picked up a sport on the side and made another Olympic team in the bobsled. Irreverent and smart and fumbling and gorgeous, Jones is the athlete's Jennifer Lawrence.
Her fans have braved the spitting rain and breezy 50 degrees to hang over the railing and call her name. As she runs down the stands to high-five the crowd, she pauses midway to sign an autograph. It creates an instant riot as fans hop the railing to just be near her. At the end of the track, the security is overwhelmed and the gate pours out another swarm toward her like she just sunk a buzzer-beater. Jones, lost in the mob, has cleared the stands.
"Track has that very stiff feeling of 'There's the track, they're on the track, I can't get on the track, so I'll stand on the side,'" she says 40 minutes later, still in her spiked racing shoes—she hasn't had a chance yet to cool down or change. "I would have been mobbed like that at Drake [Relays], if they'd allowed them on the track. But they don't allow that."
That's the difference between the American Track League, in its eight-event inaugural season, and every other track meet. ATL is autonomous from USA Track & Field, that bumbling, beholden, and beleaguered governing body, and the ATL is savvy enough to discard tradition when it's counterproductive. You can wander right up to the pole vault and witness a world-leading jump. You can see spatially just how tall high jumpers are, because you're standing right next to them. Music from a live band plays between races, and the event flows through its order with obvious orchestration. The ATL is an infectious gamble to revitalize the sport of track and field in the U.S when all signs point to inevitable decline.
"Our meets are dying," Jones says. "They hate that word in track and field. They tell you to not say it. But we are going to have to change some things, or otherwise we're not going to make it."
That's how Jones talks about track: "we" and "our." It's been her life and livelihood, and she takes an obvious pride in the United States' 29 track and field medals in the 2012 Olympics—the largest haul of any country—even if she didn't directly contribute to it. But that dominance is in jeopardy if something doesn't turn around.
"USA loves to cheer for us at an Olympics because we are the best team in the world," she says. "We're dominant, but if we lose young athletes, we're not going to be."
These thoughts of the future of track have been more and more on Jones' mind. At 31, she's well exceeded the shelf life for a short hurdler.
"I think about [retiring] all the time—every time I see a piece of chocolate cake or my friends go to happy hour. They actually have a social life on the weekends," she says. She waves her hand out toward the track and past a clump of fans that have found her. "This is Friday night for me.
"I don't want to be retired and watching the TV, and be like, 'Oh my gosh, what happened to our sport?'"
It's this fanbase that Jones has the potential to harness. To lead. She's one of several outspoken athletes in the sport. But the sport doesn't need talkers now as much as it needs leaders, and that is part of what Jones is doing in Bloomington on a Friday night.
"A lot of track athletes were like, 'Why is this race so late?' Well, you've got to wait for people to get off of work," she says. "We're not on baseball level yet."
Is the fledgling American Track League the solution to the sport's troubles? If it's not, it's at least not going quietly into that Friday night.
"I'm so nervous for it," Jones says, and then she says it again. "A lot of people are counting on it."