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.
LOS ANGELES, Jun. 30, 2008 – Over the next five weeks, you will see an advertising blitz on NBC and its affiliated channels including CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, USA Network and others to get you to watch the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, starting August 8.
One would think that since a major pull of the Games for American audiences will be the American team, the U.S. trials for the 2008 Games would play a leading, highly-orchestrated role for the U.S. Olympic Committee and its national governing bodies in the weeks leading up to the Games.
In a curious display of the disconnect in the United States between the governing bodies of the three major sports for Beijing and the U.S. Olympic Committee, the scheduling of the American trials for gymnastics, track & field and swimming are not only uncoordinated, but the latter two sports directly overlap!
If we take a look at the way award-winning, serialized dramas like HBO’s “The Sopranos” are constructed, there is a story line which moves throughout the series, introducing characters and then inviting us to follow them through their entanglements during the season. Shouldn’t there be the same thing during at least the Trials events for these three sports that will carry most of the audience for the Games?
The gymnastics event in Philadelphia was relatively short, at just four days, two for men and two for women, from June 19-22. But then come the track & field trials with eight sessions over ten days from June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Oregon and swimming with eight straight days of events from Omaha, Nebraska from July 29-July 6.
It’s understandable that these sports are interested in picking their teams at a time of their own choosing, to give the coaches and athletes the “right” amount of time to get ready for Beijing. However, none of these athletes are going to Beijing right away, since the Games don’t start until August 8 – fully a month after the track & field and swim trials are over – and large blocks of the U.S. team will be in training camps outside of China (the track team will train in Japan) until very close to the time of their competitions rather than simply the start of the Games.
So couldn’t these three events, at least, have been coordinated to give U.S. Olympic athletes the best chance to shine: live coverage of all Trials competitions on cable and at least nightly highlights on NBC, plus live weekend coverage on the network?
One of Peter Ueberroth’s disappointments in his tenure as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee has been the inability to create any serious cohesion between the USOC and the national governing bodies. Although such things aren’t discussed publicly, the national governing bodies want nothing from the USOC other than money. Just the most recent example is USA Track & Field’s grudging, unhappy acceptance of a USOC requirement that its Board of Directors be substantially reduced in size so that the organization will have, according to USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel, “a governance structure that will allow USA Track and Field board members to make decisions based on what is best for the sport as a whole, rather than what may be best for a specific constituent group.
Faced with potentially losing several million dollars in USOC funding or even being decertified as the national governing body for track & field, the USATF announced it would comply and reduce the size of its board from the current 32 to an as-yet undetermined number.
Given this lack of cooperation on matters as basic as what a national governing body should do, why should we expect the USOC and the national governing bodies to get together on presenting America’s team in the best possible light?
At least there’s a common logo for the Trials. But that’s something the USOC can – and did – do on its own.
P.S.: If you are thinking, ‘hey, this is OK, these are separate sports,’ consider the structure of the USOC and the national governing bodies as the NFL or NBA and its member clubs. Do you think for a minute that the commissioner’s offices of those sports don’t try to maximize the attention and importance of their playoffs, similar to our Olympic Trials, and coordinate every aspect for maximum impact?
Now you see why so many still think of Olympic sports as “amateur” and we’re not talking about the athletes any more.
LOS ANGELES, Jul, 4, 2008 – There’s a lot of loose talk among coaches, sportswriters, fans and athletes in Eugene, Oregon and Omaha, Nebraska about how good the U.S. track & field and swimming teams are going to be at this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
In fact, some are talking about these teams being the best ever – the greatest of all time – from the U.S., or perhaps anywhere else, to compete in the Games.
To be polite, BALDERDASH!
Let’s start with men’s swimming. It’s easy to be seduced by the individual greatness of Michael Phelps, possibly (probably?) on his way to eight gold medals: five in individual events and three on American relay teams. But Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Brendan Hansen and the rest of the boys will have to go a long way to measure up to the awesome 1976 team.
Consider that in 13 events on the men’s swimming program in Montreal, the Americans swept – gold, silver and bronze medals – in the 200 m freestyle, 200 m backstroke, 100 m butterfly and 200 m butterfly and went 1-2 in the 100 m freestyle, 400 m freestyle, 1500 m freestyle, 100 m backstroke and 400 m individual medley. That team won 12 of 13 events and set world records in 11 of them along the way to winning 25 of the 33 available individual medals (75.6%), plus both relays.
That team was so dominant, so stunningly better than everyone else that its performance is often cited as the reason that the worldwide governing body of swimming, FINA, decided to cut the number of entries allowed per country in the Olympic Games from three to two, so someone other than an American would win at least one medal in each event.
For the 2008 men’s team to equal the Montreal team’s feat – recognizing that only two Americans can enter each event – it would have to win not less than 20 individual medals and at least two relays, and set a minimum of 11 world records; that’s what the American team in Montreal actually won using the current two-entrants-per-nation rule. For the 2008 team, that’s an easier assignment than in Montreal since there are now 16 events instead of 13 as two individual events and one relay have been added since 1976. On a percentage basis, the Beijing team would have to win 92% of the available individual gold and silver medals (24 of 26) to surpass the ‘76 squad, which won 20 of the 22 available individual gold and silver medals.
There is no chance of that happening.
As proof, check out the 2007 World Aquatics Championships, held in Australia, where the Americans had a dominant meet, but won “only”15 out of 26 first and second-place medals in Olympic-program events, scored an impressive but comparatively paltry six individual world records and won two of three relays (only one in a world record).
That’s a good meet, but hardly in the same league with the unimaginably good 1976 team of freestylers Jim Montgomery, Bruce Furniss, Brian Goodell and Tim Shaw, backstrokers John Naber and Peter Rocca, breaststroker John Hencken, medley king Rod Strachan and butterfly specialists Matt Vogel, Joe Bottom and Mike Bruner.
They were, and will likely always be, the greatest swim team of all time.
As for the women, comparisons are much harder because the dominant East German teams of the 1970s and 1980s were “chemically augmented” as Olympic chronicler David Wallechinsky has so artfully put it. Even so, in the pool, the 1976 DDR squad of Kornelia Ender, Petra Thumer, Ulrike Richter and others won 11 of the 13 available gold medals and six of the 11 available silvers (15 of 22 in individual events plus both relays), plus one bronze.
That also won’t be topped, or even approached by Natalie Coughlan, Katie Hoff and friends, who won eight of 26 gold and silver medals in the 2007 World Championships in Olympic-program events plus one of three relays (the Australian women won seven individual gold or silver medals plus two relays).
Good, but not the “best ever.”
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 20, 2005 – Montreal is one of the world’s most attractive, cosmopolitan cities. The charming mix of architecture, commerce and cleanliness make it a joy to visit.
Unless you are a sports fan.
Consider how in the space of about a week, the pride of Quebec has descended to the bottom of North American sports cities and perhaps to a spot as the worst sports city in the world.
In 1969, then-Mayor Jean Drapeau led the successful bid for the 1976 Olympic Games, brushing aside financial concerns with the famed boast: “The Olympic Games can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.”
Plagued by construction problems, the Games ended with a deficit of more than $1 billion (Canadian) and a main stadium that wasn’t even finished.
Bond issues and other post-Games re-financing mechanisms used to get the 1976 venues built will not be retired until approximately 2034 according to published sources. That means a child born the day after the Games closed would be 68 years old by the time the bonds are paid!
The Bottom Falls Out
But that’s ancient history compared to more recent adventures:
• In October, the announcement was finally made that the moribund Montreal Expos – owned by Major League Baseball since 2002 – will be moved to Washington, D.C. Playing at the Stade Olympique, the Expos were the only team to draw less than a million fans at home, ending the season at 717,155.
• Earlier this month, the Olympic Installations Board received a study which indicated that the stadium could not be imploded, but would cost C$500 million to deconstruct! If imploded, clearance of the site would require the removal 20 tons of debris every seven minutes for seven hours a day for nearly three years.
Of course, the Board, having received its second study concerning demolition of the stadium, claims that it will keep the stadium intact.
• This week, the international governing body for swimming – FINA – removed the 2005 World Aquatics Championships from Montreal, citing the lack of financing. Sponsorship projects were $8 million short and ticket sales have been slow. They don’t have to worry about that any more.
The Championships are scheduled for July 17-31 and there are few alternatives. FINA is asking for candidates to make themselves and their concept for the competition known by February 15.
Although reports have cited Long Beach, California – the site of the highly-successful, but money-losing U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 – as a front-runner, it’s unlikely that the city or its convention and visitors’ bureau will risk losing more money by trying to put on the event on such short notice. More likely sites are Athens, Greece where the 2004 Olympic Games were held (but will anyone attend?) or even more likely, the Middle East emirate of Dubai on the Persian Gulf. Financing will not be a problem there.
• We’ll only mention the National Hockey League strike here to show that we’re aware of it.
It’s a bad week for Montreal sports fans. I’d say it could be worse, but I doubt it. One suggestion: before the next federation or league picks Montreal as the site for a major event or a permanent team, can I suggest some wisdom from Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the film “Jerry Maguire:”
“Show me the money!”