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National Track & Field Hall of Fame Q&A: Bob Hersh

11/20/2018
 

In advance of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony on December 1 at USATF Night of Legends, USATF interviewed Class of 2018 inductees on their athletic careers and legacies.


Today’s feature: Bob Hersh


How did you get started with track and field?

When I was a kid, I was a very avid baseball fan. I grew up living two blocks from Ebbets Field, the home of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and I went there all the time. When I was 12 years old, a good friend suggested that I might like track and field, so my father took me to a track meet at Madison Square Garden, and I just went nuts. I couldn't believe it. I really thought this is the greatest sport in the world. A couple years after that, I was able to go into the city to meets at the Garden on my own and I became a regular there.

 

I knew that I was not a particularly talented athlete, so I became the student manager of my high school track team and then I did the same thing in college at Columbia. After law school, I came back to New York and got more and more involved with the sport.

 

What achievement are you most proud of in your career in track and field?

The first time I was asked to announce the Olympic Games, I was very, very proud of that. And I continued to be proud of the fact that that over the course of a couple of decades, I was the voice of international track and field at the highest levels. I announced six Olympic Games, nine World Championships, and many, many other international and domestic meets.

 

Another thing that I was very proud of was that in the 1980s I developed the USA/Mobil Indoor Grand Prix. That was a program that brought together the meets on the North American indoor circuit, and there were more than a dozen of them at that time. I designed the Grand Prix, I wrote the rules, and I was the scorer and administrator; they actually at one point gave me the title of Commissioner.

 

The Grand Prix contributed a lot, both to the meets and to the athletes. It provided money to help the meets survive and to provide competition for the athletes, and prize money for the athletes themselves. A few years after TAC (USATF) did it, the IAAF developed its own Grand Prix, very largely based on the model that we had done.

 

Was there one moment that stands out for you in your announcing career?

Yes, it's the 2007 Penn Relays 4x800 meters relay. I was on the microphone, and much to my surprise, and everybody else's surprise, Columbia won the race. They came from behind at the end and beat teams like Michigan, Villanova and Georgetown; there were some very strong track powers in the race. Nobody expected Columbia to win it. They came up at the end and I just shouted "Columbia!"

 

It was one time when I was sorry I was on the microphone because I had to keep my composure. What I really wanted to do was start jumping up and down and screaming. But I had to let the crowd subside for a few moments, and then come up with things to say. If people ask me what's the greatest track race I've ever seen, that's what immediately comes to mind.

 

The other one was probably the greatest competition I've ever seen, which was the 1991 World Championships long jump. Mike Powell setting the world record and beating Carl Lewis—just an amazing competition.

 

How many world records have you witnessed, and which one was seen by the fewest people?

I can tell you that of the 42 standard in-stadium events at world championships and Olympics, that is everything other than the walks and the marathon, I've seen the current world record in 23 of them.

 

Over the years I've seen many, many more than that.

 

For the fewest witnesses, there are two of them that come to mind. One was Vladimir Yashchenko, a Ukrainian who broke Dwight Stones’ world record in the high jump at a U.S.-USSR junior meet in Richmond, Virginia, in 1977. It was a small track facility, and there couldn’t have been very many people in the stands. No one was expecting a world record.

 

The other one that comes to mind was at the European Championships in Prague in 1978. Vilma Bardauskiene, who was a Lithuanian also competing for the Soviet Union, broke the world long jump record. It was in a morning session and there were not a lot of people in the stands.

 

What preparation did you do for announcing the Olympic Games and other major meets?

A substantial amount of preparation. In fact, before we had laptops with web access, I would have to carry a small library around to meets. I used to say that for every hour on the microphone, I would spend two hours preparing, just doing research. In the pre-internet days, that was quite time consuming and involved access to a lot of printed material, which I had. It took time because I wanted to make sure that I had the best identification for every athlete possible.

 

The other thing that involved preparation for international meets was the pronunciation of foreign names. Again, that's a lot easier now than it was then, because now you can get pronunciation guides online very easily. I had a couple dozen of those pocket Berlitz guides to pronouncing languages like Czech, Hungarian and Russian, and other common languages, and I would try to get the pronunciation right. At some meets I would go to the meetings before the meet and if I saw coaches or officials from a particular country, I would have a tape recorder and ask them to read their roster.

 

What are the most important IAAF and USATF rule changes that you played a part in?

When I first joined the IAAF Technical Committee, the rule, which was difficult to enforce strictly, was that you could not coach from the stands or from anywhere else. A coach couldn't shout instructions to an athlete or use hand signals or hold up a sign. I thought that was absurd. Given the fact that basketball players and football players could go over and talk to the coaches, I just didn't think that made any sense. I was easily able to convince the IAAF to change that rule. Now, of course, they've gone even further by providing coaches seating in the stands, particularly near the field events.

 

Another thing that I was instrumental in changing very early on was the “sleeping leg” rule in the triple jump, which was very controversial at the 1980 Olympics.

 

I was also instrumental in introducing the rule that we currently have governing the exchanges for the 4x400 relay, where the athletes are lined up in the same order as the position of their teams at the 200-meter mark. Before that, there was no rule at all, and there were often problems. At the 1985 World Cup in Canberra, Australia, the final exchange was a total mess with runners crashing into each other and bodies on the track. I worked for a couple of years, particularly with people at the Penn Relays, to come up with a good way to regulate the exchange procedure. What we have now is not perfect, but I think it's brought order into an area that had been chaos before.

 

How has the sport overall changed since you first became involved?

When I first became involved there were five meets at Madison Square Garden every indoor season, and there were major, major, meets in California outdoors, and they were well attended.

 

There was also a thriving indoor circuit, mainly in the east but also elsewhere. Over the years, the sport's popularity diminished to what it is today, which is quite different. We could talk for days about why that happened, but that's the most dramatic change.

 

At some point after I started following the sport, women became more important. There were very few women's events, if any, back in the 50s and 60s. That started to change rapidly in the 1970s and after, and that of course has been a good change.

 

Do you have a favorite event to watch, and a favorite annual meet?

I’ve always really enjoyed watching the hammer throw. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, I don't see as many hammer throws as I would like to any more, but it’s still a great event.  On the track, I've always liked the 800 meters. It's just the right combination of speed and tactics. On the other hand, there really aren't any events that I don't like. I like watching them all. I can sit and happily watch all of them.

 

The Penn Relays is my favorite annual meet, easy answer. Number two I think would be the NCAA Outdoor Championships; I have attended the last 50 of those. I've also attended every IAAF World Championship, every World Indoor Championship, and every World and Continental cup that has ever been held. I don't think there's anybody else in the world who can make that statement.

 

Was there anyone who especially inspired you during your career?

One person who comes to mind was Dick Mason, who was the head coach at Columbia when I was there. He was a fine coach, a very intense man about competition and about the sport, and at the same time, he took a real, personal, sincere interest in all of the team as individuals, in their academics and their personal lives. He was a father figure to many athletes and he really showed me that you can be very much involved in the sport and have great human values as well.

 

What was your reaction to the news that you were being inducted into the Hall of Fame?

My reaction was, "Wow!"

 

I knew I had been nominated so it wasn't a total shock, but realizing that I was actually going to be in the Hall of Fame and thinking about all the other people in the contributor category who are there as well--that was really exciting to me.




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