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

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.

4 Comments

  1. Just because the U.S. brings home medals doesn’t mean T&F is doing well. I was at OXY and it was dead, especially considering it was a free meet. There wasn’t even a meet schedule for people to look at. Also, the timer wasn’t working and a FAN had to let the people chatting on the infield know. Our U.S. T&F athletes are soooo under appreciated by the USATF and under funded it is crazy. When T&F is on T.V. it is almost painful to watch, the announcers only talk about Usain Bolt when he isn’t even at the meet. The person that wrote this article must be from the old guard that doesn’t care how the athletes and fans are treated as long as they bring home some medals.

  2. USATF is very insular and listens to no one – and they can’t afford to pay what is needed to get someone as CEO who can actually get the job done. Furthermore, what national sports association with any credibility attempts to manage an organization with four divisions: elite, masters, open, and youth across five sports: cross country, mountain-ultra-trail, race walking, road running, and track & field – it’s hubris and hard-headed people. Each division has its own agenda and drains the organization of resources and energy. A partial answer is to cut loose youth to AAU and masters to Senior Games – in both cases, they already have redundant and/or overlapping championships. Sadly, it will never happen because USATF is beholden to membership fees. Imagine if the NFL, NBA, or MLB relied on memberships to develop their sports. Track & field is currently down there with bowling and badminton having already slipped below tennis and golf – we can’t go much lower.

  3. “When T&F is on T.V. it is almost painful to watch…”

    I couldn’t agree more. Coverage on TV is terrible, especially field events. Unless it’s the shot put, you’re lucky to see 2 or 3 attempts total by the entire field in any event.

    NBC does a much more thorough job of covering swimming, but even then it’s completely dominated by talking about Michael Phelps. Someone like Natalie Coughlin, the most decorated female athlete of the last 2 Olympics and one of the greatest swimmers ever, barely gets a peep in comparison.

    I hate the way NBC covers the Olympics in general, but the only good thing about them wrapping up the next several Games is that it keeps ESPN out of the picture. That would be even worse.

  4. It is ironic to me that there are no team scores in the Olympic Games for Athletics (Track & Field) but somehow in this country the media always boils it down to medal count. Of course it appears this is how the USOC & USA Track & Field judge success. This is the wrong approach, if we are to get the most out of our athletes we need to foster a program that encourages athletes to train and compete at all levels. Most athletes will lose more competitions then they win in the course of their careers so on their way up they need much encouragement rather then the pressure of “win a medal or we don’t love you”.
    I will avoid at this time commenting on the search for a new chief executive & the board of USA Track & Field. (Don’t get me started)
    I take issue with the statement that USA Track & Field is producing the best track athletes in the world” most of the athlete producing is done by our college system (as flawed as it my be) now just as in the past. It would be nice if USA Track & Field had some kind of program that helped produce athletes. Their job it seems to me is to assist athletes to the next level, no matter what that next level is for them. The more athletes in the post collegiate careers we have still trying to improve the healthier track & field will be in the United States. The USOC’s annual grant of $4.4 million could be used to sponsor & promote a series of meets around the country during the spring, this would be of more value then the money they have been putting into the Millrose Games. Plant some gardens with some seed money from USA Track & Field and with a little care we could cultivate are positive program that would be uplifting for both athletes & fans alike.
    As for watching track & field meets on television in the US, just turn the sound off and watch the video, this way it is less painful.

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