National Track and Field Hall of Fame


Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 75 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
The black and red bars near the ceiling are the world’s highest pole vaults…

The curators integrated visual depictions of track and field world records into the exhibition.  Bars mark heights of high jumps, lines on the floor show long jumps and shot puts and such.  It’s one thing to read a record, a much more viscerally impressive thing to see one in the flesh. 

This is my second hall of fame  (after the Hall of Fame for Great Americans), and the second museum in one of New York’s antique armory buildings (after the Park Avenue Armory).  However, it is my first museum devoted to a sport.  New York doesn’t have, say, a museum to baseball or football.  Or soccer.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Baseball cards at The Met

There are sports legends waxified at Madame Tussaud’s. The Jackie Robinson Museum hopefully exists in New York’s future.  And the Met has its baseball card collection, which I suspect it keeps mainly to show it’s even more encyclopedic than the Louvre.  But in general sports are an underserved museum topic in New York City.

The National Track and Field Hall of Fame resides in the 1909 22nd Core of Engineers Armory in Harlem.  The entire building is now a track-and-field complex, with a running track in the vast former drill hall.  Like most of New York’s armories the architecture is cool and castle-like.

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory

Getting in is a Rare Privilege

The National Track and Field Hall of Fame is also very hard to get into.  I don’t mean it’s hard to be elected, though I suppose it is that, too. I  mean, it doesn’t really keep regular hours. It’s mercurial. The website suggests visitors can make an appointment, but that’s not the reality.  In reality, you call them and they say “it’s not open today, but it’ll be open next Monday.”  And then you call them next Monday and they say “nope, not open today.” And you ask when it’ll be open next and they say for sure Thursday.  And then on Thursday the same thing happens again.  It took at least four phone calls, and one botched attempt to just drop in, before I got a “yes, it’s open today.”  So be sure to call the day you want to visit.

The Track and Field Museum

The museum part of the Hall of Fame is larger than I expected. One section reviews Track and Field over time, with stands covering major events in the sport for each decade or so, starting in the late 1800s.  It’s mostly text and pictures, though each stand has space for a few relics as well, which helps create connections to the times and the people.  

It tells stories about the evolution of track, like the late 19th century craze for “pedestrianism” which had people strolling for extreme distances.  It also covers key people, like all-around athlete Jim Thorpe, and of course Bruce Jenner, who is better known today for things other than a decathlon career.  

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
It’s pronounced “Hahvuhd”

Unfortunately, the history part of the museum ends abruptly in 2003. There’s a wall sign that encapsulates everything since then but it’s jarring — it’s like the Mossman Lock Collection of Track and Field.  I find it disappointing that the museum doesn’t have the time or money to extend the story to the present.

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory

Another part of the ground floor covers science and technology.  Topics include:

  • How shoes, clothes, hurdles, and other gear have evolved from their comically primitive early incarnations (in ancient Greece:  naked! early pole vault poles:  lengths of bamboo!) to today’s high-tech materials.  
  • What athletes have to eat to stay fueled up, and the ways that the body turns that fuel into action.  
  • A bit about the physics — biomechanics — of running, jumping, and throwing.  

All interesting and well presented.

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
Timeline of Running Shoes
National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
Yet More Gold Medals…

The Hall of Fame’s artifacts notably include an impressive collection of Olympic gold medals.  Indeed, this place scatters them around almost cavalierly, kind of the way the United Nations Headquarters shows off its Nobel Peace Prizes.

Marathon Men

Upstairs, a mezzanine level relates the history of the New York City Marathon, and a bit about other notable U.S. marathons.  Fun fact:  the first New York City Marathon happened in 1970, and was won by Gary Muhrcke, a NYC firefighter who pulled an all-night shift the evening before.

The space has the route of the marathon emblazoned on the floor.  Strolling along it is as close as I ever hope to get to running a marathon.

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
The Marathon!

The Hall of Fame Itself

After absorbing the story of the museum, I walked upstairs to take in the actual Hall of Fame itself.  At first I found it disappointingly understated. Where I had a mental image of ranks of bronze busts…or bronze track shoes… the National Track and Field Hall of Fame’s physical manifestation is simply names etched in panels of glass, fronting the Armory Center track.  

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
Hall of Glass

In the end, I appreciated the concept: you see greats of the past, but look beyond them and you can see potential greats of the future, too.

It’s got all the categories: decathlons and heptathlons, race-walking (hee hee), marathons, with simple dates and names.  It also includes coaches, administrators, writers, and a single official (Andy Bakjian, from 1986).  A passing staffer noted my intent focus and asked, jokingly, if I was in the hall of fame.  I said, “Not yet.”  But if I start a track and field blog (once I’m done with museums), I could make it as a writer!

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory
Is the heptathlon the one with guns?

Should You Visit the National Track and Field Hall of Fame?

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, ArmoryI’m not this museum’s core audience.  Jogging bores me.  Never ran track in high school, and of all the Olympic sports, track is probably last on my list of want-to-sees.  (Note: I do know that the heptathlon doesn’t involve guns; I just like modern pentathlon.)  Add to that the difficulty I had simply getting this place to take my money and let me in, and I wasn’t so well-disposed to it.

However, I liked the National Track and Field Hall of Fame more than I expected.  It’s interesting and well curated, even if its historical bit ends prematurely.  I’m still never going to run a marathon, but perhaps I understand better now why (and how) people do.

If you do have a sports streak, and especially if you run or jump or throw, you should definitely attempt a visit.  Fans of old armories would enjoy visiting, too. But even those who don’t do any of that stuff may, like me, find it enlightening.  

National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Armory

For Reference:

Address 216 Fort Washington Avenue (at West 168th Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $5.  Call 212-923-1803 to find out if it’s open before you go.