USA Track & Field’s ROI on $4.4 million from the USOC

June 8, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Olympic Games, Swimming, Track & Field 

LOS ANGELES, Jun. 8, 2011 – The rightly-celebrated Alan Abrahamson, one of the most-respected journalists covering the Olympic Movement in the United States, filed a lengthy report on June 6 entitled Track and field – going nowhere fast in the United States, which included these gems:


Track and field is going nowhere fast in the United States.

It can, and must, do better — especially because USATF, track and field’s governing body, is getting $4.4 million annually in grant money from the U.S. Olympic Committee, the most any governing body is getting, and with that kind of cash comes heavy responsibility.

. . .

[W]hat, exactly, is the USOC getting in return for that $4.4 million? Relay teams that keep dropping the baton at the Olympics and world championships and — what else?

Now, Alan is a longtime friend, but while reading the column, I couldn’t help thinking of Mel Brooks as the Indian chief in the 1975 comedy classic, Blazing Saddles:

Nein, nein. Zeist est meshugah!

For those not up on their Yiddish, the translation is “No, no. This is crazy.” And so it is.

Yes, USA Track & Field underachieves when it comes to the public profile of the sport in the U.S. Yes, the governing body is still looking for a new chief executive after having fired Doug Logan just weeks after he signed a new contract. Yes, what was once a vibrant U.S. spring track season has been reduced for most professional runners to competing in the U.S. nationals in order to make it to the World Championships.

But the $4.4 million that the U.S. Olympic Committee spends on track & field does earn a return: Olympic medals.

Consider the U.S. track fortunes in the three Olympic Games following the home cooking of Atlanta in 1996:

• 2000: 19 track & field medals (10 gold): 19.6% of the U.S. total of 97.
• 2004: 25 track & field medals (8 gold): 24.3% of the U.S. total of 103.
• 2008: 23 track & field medals (7 gold): 20.9% of the U.S. total of 110.

That’s production. Consistent, and – by the way – dominant. Just look at the top of the track & field medal standings in each of those Games:

• 2000: U.S.; 19, Russia, 12; Ethiopia, 8.
• 2004: U.S., 25; Russia, 19; Ethiopia and Kenya, 7.
• 2008: U.S.; 23, Russia, 18; Kenya, 14.

If, as Abrahamson notes, track is the bellwether sport in the Games, then USA Track & Field is holding up its end, producing – somehow – the best track athletes in the world, as did its predecessors in name, The Athletics Congress (TAC) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). The U.S., is, has been and will be for the foreseeable future, the world’s leading track & field power, and that’s what the USOC is buying with its $4.4 million annual grant.

Not bad, really, especially for a sport with as many hang-ups as track & field in the U.S.

Although not noted in the story, the one party which should feel aggrieved is USA Swimming, which is the biggest American medal machine of all. American swimmers (not including diving, synchronized swimming or water polo) collected 33 medals in 2000, 28 in 2004 and 31 in Beijing in 2008, beating the track team each time and producing 34.0%, 27.2% and 28.2% of all American medals won.

If anything, our swimmers are under-funded, but with NBC’s $4.38 billion buy-in for the Olympic Games from 2014-2020, maybe they’ll draw even with their land-based compatriots. Anything less . . . that would be meshugah.