Under the late July evening sky, spectators slowly filled Greensboro’s White Oak Amphitheatre. The Sleeping Booty Band was about to go on. They’re a cover outfit out of Raleigh, playing ’70s funk and disco favorites with the G-rated charm, flair and virtuosic cleanliness of a very good wedding band.
But before that — before the crowd received what they really came for — USA Masters Games CEO Hill Carrow had a few words for the closing ceremonies.
“There’s never been a USA Masters Games before,” he told everyone. “There’ve been others around the world, but never one in the United States. Give yourselves a round of applause, ’cause y’all are the founders of this event.”
Did you know the inaugural USA Masters Games — the amateur Olympics, in three words — was coming to Greensboro from July 21 to July 31? I did, because I received a press release back in April 2015. That was right after I began my tenure as Triad City Beat’s sports columnist. Many of us were still laughing at the concept of Donald Trump running for president back then.
But I wonder how many civilians knew about the competition, comprised of more than 2,500 amateur athletes from 45 states and 12 countries vying for medals in 24 different sports at more than 20 venues across the Triad. There was hardly any news coverage, despite the News and Record and WXII-12 News sponsoring the events. The only real promotion I ever saw consisted of a few discrete vertical banners around the coliseum and other host venues, like UNCG and NC A&T University.
Time Warner Cable News actually published a piece on June 6 urging people to register as athletes.
I’d gone to the Greensboro Aquatic Center to check out diving on July 31, the last day of the games. The age bracket wasn’t listed on the printout schedule I’d received when I got my credential; according to the volunteer who helped me out, I would’ve had to buy an official program. I guessed the divers were from the 45-and-over contingent.
Attendance was paltry. A few stragglers and competitors cheered on their fellow athletes.
The Games Village in the Special Events Center was a wasteland completely devoid of activity.
I meandered over to Halls B and C, where table tennis and 3-on-3 basketball games were supposed to be underway. A few pickup games were wrapping up, but, again, no one sat in the stands. Many athletes were back in plain clothes.
“Y’all too cute to hoop now, man!” one guy yelled at a trio of players in Tommy Hilfiger polos.
I peeked into Hall B. A row of probably a dozen ping-pong tables hosted a round-robin singles tournament with athletes of all ages swiping and serving. But, again, no one watched them. The only sounds came from the refrigerated hum of the air conditioner and the polyrhythmic clicky-clack, clickety-clack of the little white spheres against table and paddle.
I went back to the courts and approached a member of the Neese’s Sausage team, center Dupree Hall from Greensboro.
“There was a nice crowd yesterday,” Hall said. “[The games] were early today, so it may be a bit better this afternoon.”
“What’s going on then?” I asked.
“The 5-on-5 championship,” Hall said. “Starts at 4.”
This event wasn’t listed on the schedule. It wasn’t on the program either, which I nabbed for free later that night.
After leaving the Special Events Center, I drove by UNCG Baseball Stadium to see if the 21+ bronze medal game was still going on or if teams vying for the gold medal were warming up, but the stadium was barren. The vertical banners still waved in the breeze.
Another disconnect between schedule and reality.
Before Sleeping Booty took the White Oak Amphitheatre, Hill Carrow personally awarded gold medals to event organizers Jim Belk and Scott Johnson.
That afternoon, I’d run into three women wearing legitimate gold medals outside the Games Village. They were part of an 11-woman team from Seattle who’d won the 40-49 age bracket in synchronized swimming. They’d first heard of the games last October at a national meet in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Some of our team had gone to the World Masters,” Melissa Johnson said. “We heard about the USA Masters and thought, Could be fun.”
The three women had been to socials every night.
“They were all local bands we’d never heard of, so that was a treat,” Debbie Stewart said.
“I’ve been posting on Facebook about the competitions, and people have said, ‘I could probably do that,’” Kelly Lawyer said. “I tell them, ‘Yeah, you probably could!’ The worse you are, the more people you can get to support you.”
Sitting on the amphitheater’s grassy berm waiting for Sleeping Booty to begin, I figured the 200-odd people milling about outnumbered the complete attendance on the games’ closing day. And many of them were probably athletes.
The athletes who competed in the inaugural USA Masters Games exuded passion for their sports. But the community around them seemed unaware, maybe showing up to the ceremonies because they heard about a concert at the White Oak.
After Sleeping Booty played their renditions of “Roller Coaster” and “Brick House,” Carrow took the stage again to reveal that San Diego would host the 2018 games.
Let’s hope America’s Finest City shows a warmer welcome.