The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

US Track & Field Needs to Regain it’s Swagger…

Jun 18th, 2010
6:36 am PDT
BEIJING - AUGUST 21:  Torri Edwards of the United States and Lauryn Williams of the United States drop the batton in the Women's 4 x 100m relay Heats held at the National Stadium during Day 13 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 21, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The latest volley between the leadership of US Track & Field  and our coaches focused on the “embarrassment” that some coaches have brought upon the sport in this country – at least from the point of view of USATF. The one thing that they got right is that we should be embarrassed here in the United States – but not because of the actions of any particular coaches or athletes. I say that because when an athlete or coach “goes down” the embarrassment is on the individual. These are ADULTS making adult decisions – individuals that are responsible as such for the decisions that they make as well as the subsequent consequences.

No different than any other working environment when a colleague goes down for some sort of negative activity – embezzlement, harassment, DUI, etc. You don’t like the “company” name being associated, but you also know that the “company” was not responsible for the actions of the individual. In the event that the actions of the individual did real damage to the company (as in the case of let’s say embezzlement) you review the situation to see how/why it occurred and what you as a company could have done to detect/deter/prevent the action. But surely you don’t feel perpetually “embarrassed” by what occurred.

What should cause embarrassment, however, is poor performance by your company. If your company puts out an inferior product, you should be embarrassed. If your company puts out a product that is consistently outsold, you should be embarrassed. If your company is being out performed by smaller companies with fewer employees, fewer resources, and less access to capital, you should be embarrassed. And if your company was once a solid #1 world wide, but has slipped precipitously towards the middle of the pack, you should be embarrassed.

So USATF SHOULD be embarrassed, because we are putting out an inferior product. We are being consistently outsold by other sports when it comes to filling the stands. We are being out performed by Caribbean, African, and European nations in every aspect of the sport be it direct results on the track, the development of major world class events, the development of world class stadiums and tracks, or the hosting of global major events – yet we have more human & economic resources in this country.

We were once THE preeminent power in the world when it comes to track and field – now we’re just one of the bunch. We haven’t completed a relay in the last four tries in a global event – let alone won a race. We sent athletes out on the track in the last Olympic Games with “USA” handwritten on their bibs! It took us almost 40 years to go from the 28 minute barrier to the 27 minute barrier in the 10000 meters. We currently have ONE male sprinter guaranteed to make a 100 meter final in a major – if we can get him to the starting line in one piece. We are uncompetitive in half of the field events on the big stage and winning a medal on the track at anything above 400 meters is a crap shoot. THESE are the things that should be causing us (our leadership) alarm!

So while I can appreciate the continued mention of drugs and how embarrassed our CEO is that some things happened in the past, that is but one of MANY things that need his attention. And frankly that’s why WADA and USADA are in place – to weed out the drug riff raff. Perhaps those are the organizations that Mr. Logan should be employed by – as he can then focus on what seems to be his passion. Because the focus of the CEO of USATF should be on trying to restore the swagger back to US track and field. To that end here are some things that I think our leadership should be attacking with vigor:


Fundraising and Capital Development

This sport has become all about MONEY. If you have it you can run meets that can afford to pay the steep appearance fees that today’s athletes demand. It has become clear that individual meets have had difficulty in this area. Our governing body should be able to provide assistance to ensure that our meets have the caliber of athletes necessary to attract crowds and have international appeal. To that end we should be looking to develop a broader base of partnerships within the business community to assist in the growth and development of the sport in this country. If Visa can be a sponsor then so can American Express and Mastercard. Telecommunication companies should be a natural fit, as should technology companies. I can think of many others, but you should get the picture by now.


Meet Development

We have TWO meets in this country that truly qualify as “world class” – the New York and Eugene Diamond League events. No disrespect to the others out there, but the rest are primarily relay type “domestic” meets with a plethora of others involved outside of “elite” athletes – and we need those meets too. However, we’ve lost our global presence in the sport. We need events that bring in the best the sport has to offer to help sell the sport to the masses; present a higher profile to the world on the face of US track & field; and to give OUR athletes money making opportunities here at HOME as well as on foreign soil. So to that end we need at least another two to four world class meets with here in the US. Preferably in locations like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Berkeley (representative of the SF area) and somewhere in Florida (UNF or Miami) – covering the East and West Regions. In addition, we MUST look at the development of a facility here in the United States that is capable of hosting the World Championships. Probably in one of the aforementioned areas, because we need a major metropolitan area capable of hosting the athletes and media of the world. Since its inception in 1983, the US has NEVER hosted a World Championships while a country the size & economy of Spain has hosted two!


Coaching Development

We have some of the world’s best coaches residing right here in the US – IMHO. However, we are a large and diverse nation – a nation with lots of untapped human potential. We have a large high school program and a large youth program. But there is a disconnect between taking these young people from being teen athletes to moving them up to the next level. We rely on the college system to do that work for us. But these coaches – while among the best in the world – are beholden to their schools FIRST, and to the development of professional level athletes second. We need to be looking at ways to take the terrific coaches that we already have – the Salazars, Smith’s, Kersee’s, et al – and create programs where perhaps they can work with and mentor others so that we can multiply their knowledge across the country.


Athlete Development Programs

Once we get a sufficient number of coaches “trained” we need to take a look at how to get them together in some sort of regional/area training sites/centers. Yes I know we have a couple of “centers” already. But they are not nearly enough nor do they adequately serve the athletes in the way the athletes need to be served. We have to get to where the athletes are – not continually attempt to make them come to us. We also need to run “youth camps” taking high school level kids and putting them in touch with our elite coaches. For example, young sprinters with John Smith and Brooks Johnson or young distance runners with Alberto Salazar to begin mentoring them early and get them started properly. Just suggestions, but the basic premise is that we need to be providing our young athletes with top level coaching assistance early in their careers and in some sort of systematic environment.


National Relay Structure

Our failures in the past two majors in the short relays have been well documented – four relays, four incomplete events. While this is the worst set of performances we’ve had on the global stage in any single, let alone two year period, the handwriting has been on the wall for some time. Going back to the mid 90’s we’ve had several squads that have either botched handoffs and failed to get the stick around the track, or simply under performed dramatically. Gone are the days of simply taking the first four finishers at nationals and running the socks off the rest of the world. We now need to get the right individuals together and perfect the art of relay running. This means we must look at developing some sort of national relay structure – something more comprehensive than taking the first four Trials finishers and introducing them to each other upon arrival at the Olympic Village. We need to look at how the team is selected and put together, as well as getting them together with some regularity to work on relay technique.


Anti Drug Program

Simply put we need to accelerate and expand the “Project Believe” program that was started two years ago. It should become a mandatory program for all athletes that wish to participate on National Teams. I say “wish to participate” because we should not wait until an individual makes a national team to enroll them and get them started. Program enrollment should be made available on an ongoing basis and should be heavily suggested to anyone taking part in a national championship.


I’m not going to pretend that these are all the answers to our problems. I just put them out there as topics that are clear issues that the sport needs to address here in the US. We’ve lost our international swagger and need to get it back – and it’s not going to happen by pointing fingers at those that we feel have embarrassed us. I believe that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. So, I share my thoughts on how we can improve. Finger pointing isn’t going to win us any medals or regain our global stature. Gathering together the resources that we have will, however. So at the very least we need to take a good look at how we are using what we have, and look at ways to do things better. After all that’s supposed to be the American way – it’s how businesses regain their swagger.

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