Is city losing passion for amateur sports?

Once upon a time, Pan Am Plaza was one of the most vibrant gathering spaces in our city.

No longer. Awaiting the redevelopment that depends on an economic recovery, it is virtually empty, its bricks and concrete
crumbling. Unabated winds blowing through it carry with them the whisper of past glories, when anything in our city seemed
possible, including the gigantic hemispheric gathering for which the plaza is named.

Now, ’tis but a sad reminder of days gone by. The flame was long ago extinguished; the party’s over.

Too, the plaza ice rinks—such a unique part of the downtown setting—will soon be gone. Who knows where the determined
Pam
Robinson and her World Skating Academy will end up … the Pepsi Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, perhaps.

I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed visitors peering through the windows, delighted by the unexpected sight of spinning
figure skaters or thudding hockey players, especially in the warm-weather months. A city that pleasantly surprises is a pleasant
surprise.

In any case, the academy is likely out of downtown … out of sight … out of mind.

On the IUPUI campus, the IU Michael Carroll Track & Field Stadium, home to Olympic trials and national championships over
the years, where Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee thrilled us with amazing performances, has
been targeted for green space and housing on a campus master plan.

While it is at this moment just that, a plan, the facility—which already has lost the IHSAA championships to Indiana
University’s
Bloomington campus—needs significant upgrades if it is to remain viable. The thought occurs that we may have seen the
last
gold medal being slipped over a bowed head. That makes me wistful.

Nearby, IUPUI also has cast an eye at the Indianapolis Tennis Center, viewing that land as far too valuable for a niche sport
and an annual event. I think of the resolve of Indy’s Mr. Tennis, Stan Malless, who was the driving force behind the center
and the move of his event—then the U.S. Clay Court Championships—downtown. I recall the sultry summer nights and
steamy days
of watching the world’s best racqueteers, men and women, in action.

Commuters on Interstate 65 just north of White River can glance at the Major Taylor Velodrome and, yes, it has spawned a national
collegiate championship program at Marian College. But if there’s been a national event there in recent years, or if one is
on the schedule for the future, I’m not aware of it.

At least the Natatorium at IUPUI seems to be holding its own. America’s top swimmers, including Michael Phelps—OK, insert
punch line here—will be there this summer for the U.S. Nationals, and USA Diving’s National Training Center spawned a
tank
load of Hoosier Olympians last summer.

Still, it’s unlikely the Nat will ever host another Olympic trials with portable pool technology taking the sport into larger
venues.

Ah, but those were the days.

Yes, the Big Ten basketball tournaments just left town and the NCAA’s Midwest Regional is about to move in. We’ll have four
Final Fours—two men’s, two women’s—in a seven-year stretch and, of course, just about everyone has February 2012
circled on
their mental calendar for that extravaganza called the Super Bowl.

But the hard-earned title of amateur sports capital seems to be peeling away like the paint on some of the venues I mentioned.
By that, I don’t diminish the huge presence of the NCAA in our midst or the continued presence of the national governing bodies
that have remained committed to Indianapolis.

Bless ’em.

But certainly in terms of events, I wonder if the heyday is history, particularly the international variety. The last was
the Short Course World Swimming Championships at Conseco Fieldhouse in 2004, an amazing artistic success if not a financial
one. That was, of course, preceded by the World Basketball Championships in 2002, which got swept up in the perfect storm
of a post-9/11 environment, a poor USA team and a one-sided agreement with FIBA, the rights-holder.

Currently, we are fixed—and rightfully so—on the issues involving funding for Conseco Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium
and the
Indiana Pacers. The good folks at the Indiana Sports Corp. have their own set of challenges. I’m not suggesting they drop
everything—including money—in the pursuit of events that may no longer fit.

Yet it has been that rich tapestry of events—rowing, track and field, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming, diving, cycling—that
really made us believe in this "amateur sports" thing.

As I stroll across Pan Am Plaza, I wonder if the flame hasn’t died in other ways.

___

Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association
and a former sports columnist
for
The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at
bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
 

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