Halfway through the Worlds: A leaderless USA Track & Field may be the way to go

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 30, 2011 – The United States track & field team hasn’t had an especially brilliant World Championships so far in Daegu, South Korea. The depressing facts showed:

• Only one finalist in the men’s 100 m and 400 m in events where the U.S. is traditionally strong, if not dominant.

• No better than ninth in the men’s pole vault.

• Less than hoped-for performances from stars like Nick Symmonds in the 800 meters, David Oliver in the 110-meter Hurdles, Sanya Richards-Ross in the 400 meters and Shalane Flanagan in the 10,000 meters. Not to mention that injuries have sidelined Tyson Gay, Jeremy Wariner, Bryan Clay and impacted the efforts of Jenn Suhr and Hyleas Fountain, among others.

After four of the eight days of track & field competition, the American team has nine medals, but could optimistically forecast a final total of about 25, which will clearly keep them at the top of the standings. And there have been heartening performances from sprinter Carmela Jeter, shot putter Jillian Camarena-Williams, a barely-in-shape LaShawn Merritt and decathletes Trey Hardee and Ashton Eaton.

If this were baseball, or football, or basketball, or soccer, you’d been seeing some close questioning of the team’s head coach, especially on NBC and Universal Sports. Can you even name the head coaches of the American men’s and women’s teams?

Give up? It’s Vin Lananna for the men and Connie Price-Smith for the women.

Now that you know, maybe it’s just as well that you don’t. One of the striking aspects of the pre- and post-event interviews in Daegu is the total irrelevance of the national team coaches and the continuous referrals to personal coaches, like John Smith, Bobby Kersee and even former sprint star Harvey Glance, who tutors Grenada’s 400-meter world champion Kirani Jones (who competed for Glance at Alabama this year).

And that’s our sport today. A bunch of individuals who are just as likely to get their workouts via e-mail as from a coach who sees them daily, whose racing schedules are set by agents they hear from by telephone, text message and voice mail and a few family and friends who may be the only ones with them for their daily workouts, often at a local high school track.

For those who know the joy of teammates, it’s a sad reality really. But if the goal of USA Track & Field is to maximize its medal count in the World Championships and the Olympic Games – remember ex-C.E.O. Doug Logan’s “Project 30″ goal for London? – it might be better off dropping any pretense of trying to make track & field a higher-profile sport and maybe just forget about finding a chief executive at all.

Under the current structure, there is accountability for the performance of the American track team at USATF in the person of Chief of Sport Performance Benita Fitzgerald Mosley. And there is direct responsibility for the always-exciting American relay circus in national relay coach Jon Drummond.

Why not just take whatever revenues the USATF receives and hand it out to athletes and coaches. Forget about trying to put on a bunch of track meets to get people interested in the sport.

For the most part, the athletes don’t seem to care anyway. Look at this year’s schedule, with most American stars running very few events prior to the U.S. Nationals in June and then the IAAF scheduling a total of 13 Diamond League or World Challenge meet days in the 87 days prior to the World Championships!

Just like NFL pre-season games, no one wants to run any more for fear of getting hurt. Just train, train, train and get to the Nationals, so you can make the Worlds team. Then run only enough to maintain some race sharpness, satisfy your sponsors (if you have any) and collect enough appearance and prize money for living expenses before going home to spend several weeks in training for the Worlds. That’s what our sport is now . . . not only in the U.S., but for most of the world. Except for two meets a year – the Nationals and the Worlds – the whole season is the equivalent of the NFL’s pre-season.

Thus, is it any wonder that the big money – in television, sponsorships and ticket sales (have you noticed that huge sections of seats in the second tier of the Daegu Stadium are covered?) – goes to sports which have a well-defined regular season, followed by a climatic playoff season?

But that’s not track & field, or swimming, or gymnastics today. In track, USATF is being run by three committees in concert with Chief Operating Officer Mike McNees. Twenty-five medals is pretty good; maybe it should stay that way.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

5 Comments

  1. In the 1980s the sports world started to change.Sports sociologist warned sports that if they where to be competive in the future they would have adopt the values of the modern sports culture..Track for the most part ignored the warning signs and today the sport looks more like an intramural sport compared to the most popular sports in in today’s sports world.. The most basic value in today’s Modern Sports Culture is the team concept.The second most valued concept is Head to Head Competition..You must hand it to Football, Basketball, Baseball and Soccer.Those sports realized that more than 95% of the sports infrastructure is on the school and college grounds in America and have found a way to make them a very important part of the school system while the support for Track has been on a steady decline at the college level ..When America changed from an Agrarian to Urban society the values changed. Track and Field must remember this basic principle stressed by sports sociologist and sports writers in the 1980’s; Sport depend upon the society in which it exists …What does the sport look like through the eyes of a mother wanting to get her children invloved in sports.?.What does the sport look like through the eyes of the dad when he read that just last week Professional Golf offered over 13 million dollars in prize money for just one weekend?..What is going through the mind of the young track athlete walking down the hall with his or her school mates who are talking about their team and beating their team rival on Friday Night. Maybe “No LONGER A COZY CORNER ” made sense

  2. Are you sure you haven’t received an interview request for that CEO job yet?

    You’ve just articulated what many of us out here are feeling.

  3. Why is leadership needed? In 2002 40 billion dollars spent fighting obesity in USA..It jumped to 147 Billion in 2008 and estimated to be as high as 344 billion in 2018..This crisis is discussed daily at every level and the nations leaders and the media is leading the way. We need to join in and let the people know we have one of the best sports to develop fitness in all body types and help turn this crisis around..Leadership is needed to work with the national leaders fighting the obesity crisis and leadership is needed to encourage, organize and schedule todays Track and Field Stars to take an activite roll in th is fight..We have a great sport and great role models. Let the doctors and the media help us sell it to the public…This takes leadership at the top…We are now in what sports sociologist calls a “Wave Of Opportunity”.

  4. Mr Perelman you seem to be on the mark again. I am at a loss to explain how I feel about the state of Track & Field in the US these days. It seems to me that things are surely going to get worse and I am not convinced that they will ever get better. There are so many things wrong and it seems that the folks in charge just plain DON’T GET IT! The athletes are not completely blameless, they need to be involved and set the example. Train smart & well, compete hard & often, not trying to avoid the other guy. They need to take charge of their careers and tell the agents that they are the CEO of their brand. By taking charge they need to do what is right for them and watch out for the sport while they are at it. The drug thing is going to kill the sport if doesn’t get under control, athletes need to see this and do something about it. (don’t take them) The media could help but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. The US media’s idea of a good track story is to do another story about Marion Jones and quote her that she did no wrong. (who cares anymore) I continue to love this sport but no one involved makes it easy to do these days.

  5. Rich, your Brilliant as always! Without someone like you who understands it all from the inside and outside we would be really lost. Keep up the good work but too bad others don’t get the message.

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