Friday, December 12, 2014

Will Leer on the USATF Convention Experience

To those of us out there who give a damn,

Last week (yes, the entire week) was my fourth time attending the USATF Annual Meeting. This year’s edition convened in Anaheim, California, a stones throw from Disneyland. It was five days of endless meetings, post-meeting socials and cocktail hours. Breakfast meetings started at 8:30 am and late-night negotiations would routinely last until bar closing (between 1 and 2 am). If you don’t geek out on track, you were certainly in the minority. Or, rather, you simply were not there. This is our sports yearly Comic-Con where all of the die-hards come out to play.

Now, before delving too deeply into what I am sure lots of you would like to hear, namely the juicy gossip from a bearded attendee, let me share with you the overarching feeling with which I left this years Annual Meeting: Hope. As I traversed the two main conference floors of the Hilton Anaheim, at times literally running between meetings like a crazed Pheidippides, all the while passing likeminded tracksters in the hallways, exchanging frantic text messages, phone calls and high fives, it hit me: our sport is good people. My father, always one to take the opportunity to correct my grammar as a child, will likely cringe as he reads the previous sentence, but I stand by it. 

Those who were not so fortunate as to have their travel, accommodation and/or registration paid for, came to Anaheim on their own dollar, just as they had for meetings in St. Louis, Daytona Beach, and Indianapolis, etc. By a very conservative estimate, attending the Annual Meeting costs $900 per person. And the USATF faithful gladly shell this out year after year. Why? Because they care. Because at the Annual Meeting they have a voice. Or at least they thought they did. And this is why some people are so upset right now. But I will touch on this later. As I said before, I left with the feeling of hope. 

My primary role at the previous two Annual Meetings has been as the Athlete Advisory Committee event leader for the middle distances (800m – 1,500m). This position requires the wearing of many different hats. In any one meeting event leaders fight for athlete’s rights, advocate, negotiate, and vote on rule changes, and lend insight into how funding can be most effectively allocated. We are also there simply to be present and visible. Attendees of the Annual Meeting love to see and hear from athletes. “What matters most to you, the athlete? And how can we help?” a Committee Chairperson might ask. Suddenly all eyes and ears are directed to your response, which promptly becomes item number one on the agenda. In spite of this, every one of our requests/complaints/suggestions isn’t immediately and magically resolved. But it is clear that people care and are there to help, to the best of their abilities. 

For example, here are a few of the positive changes I personally witnessed:
·      As the old adage goes, “better late than never”, Andrew Bumbalough’s disqualification from the 2014 Indoor National Championships was reversed and his 8th place finish was reinstated.
·      The American Record for the 25km distance, previously held by convicted drug cheat, Mohammed Trafeh, was returned to its rightful owner.
·      Sanya Richards-Ross successfully lobbied for the removal of an unnecessary preliminary round in the sprint races should a sufficient number of athletes “scratch” out of competition.
·      The chairs of both the Men’s and Women’s Track and Field agreed to fill the fields of distance races to the best of their abilities. Namely, 24 hours prior to the race start, fields will be filled according to the descending order list.
·      With regards to the overfilled fields at last year’s Indoor Track and Field Championships, it was agreed that a maximum field size would be set for the 1,500m/1-mile and 3,000m finals. In the event more athletes than the selected maximum run the qualifying standard, a “B” final will be run outside the window of time reserved for the television broadcast, wherein the “A” final will be contested.

These may not seem like enormous changes, but to me they illustrate that we still have an organization willing to hear the wishes of its athletes and do its best to help. Keep in mind the above listed items were merely the victories and positive changes I witnessed. I assure you there were many, many more. If there were never any changes, the 500+ people who attend the Annual Meeting each year would not continue to show up.

So now to address what everyone is upset about, namely the board of directors decision to overturn the vote of the constituency to nominate Bob Hersh for the IAAF Council and instead choose current USATF President Stephanie Hightower. If you would like more information as to the specifics of the role of IAAF Council, please read David Greifinger’s opinion piece on

From the outset of the Annual Meeting, the USATF National Office took the strategy of pushing the numbers. From the purely financial side of things, USATF is doing better than we have in decades. Net assets, sponsorship revenue, budgetary expenses, and athlete funding have all increased. Our federation is sitting in the best position it has since I began my career as a post-collegiate athlete seven years ago. This is great news. Ideally, a financially healthy federation means more support to athletes and better results in the major championships. We are, and intend to continue to be, the world’s number one track and field team!

But money doesn’t change everything. In fact, for many (people and corporations alike) having more resources should allow the freedom to focus your attention on becoming better. What better means in this instance, I don’t know. But it certainly is not the back room type dealings we witnessed in Anaheim.

Will Leer wins the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games
In the aftermath of the board’s decision to overturn the nomination of Bob Hersh, USATF’s director of communications, Jill Geer, issued a press release in which she made the bold claim that “very few organizations in our everyday lives are ‘pure democracies.’ ”  While that may very well be true, in our instance democracy counts. Nearly all of the elected positions within USATF are accountable to the membership. And a vote this lopsided (392-70 in favor of Hersh) speaks loudly for the constituency and their collective desire. While the 85% majority vote was indeed in favor of Mr. Hersh, it was equally against current USATF President Stephanie Hightower. I will grant the board that this is an important year at the IAAF with the election of a new President (current President Lamine Diack has held the position since 1999). This should usher in a new era for the IAAF with new leadership and new direction. We need to be prepared for that change, as hard as it may be, and clearly the board decided, by its 11-1 vote, that Mr. Hersh was not amenable to the newly defined role of IAAF council.

This still doesn’t answer the important question “Why?” In her remarks to the floor at the Opening Session, Mrs. Hightower spoke of the need to eliminate the rifts between “us” and move forward together. This decision, without a clear explanation of it’s intent (Hell, just tell me that you think Bob Hersh was doing a crappy job!) does not lead the membership to trust the board. By not explaining their motivations it leads people to believe their actions are more dubious than they truly may be and appear as an effort for the board to procure more power. Like her or not, on her blog, Lauren put it quite well:

"I don’t know enough about Stephanie Hightower to know if she would be good at the job or not, or better than Bob, etc. But I do know that at this meeting… she completely disregarded the wishes of the people she is meant to represent… She claims she wants to end divisiveness among us and then leads a huge political power move to get what she wants. How can we expect a person like that to represent us well at the IAAF? How can we trust the board? … I mean, what is really at stake here that’s worth tearing us apart?"

Then again it could be as simple as “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” As members of the board themselves, Mr. Hirsh and Mrs. Hightower both had the ability to lobby for votes. Clearly Mrs. Hightower did a better job at convincing them she was the better person for the job. If we want to change things of this nature from happening in the future, it is up to us to change the game. 

All of this being said, we may be okay. This whole conversation could end up being for naught. That would be ideal. It remains to be seen whether or not Mrs. Hightower will be accepted in to the IAAF community. After all, politics on their highest level are ridiculous. If that is also the case with the IAAF, then who better to represent us than Mrs. Hightower. At least we know her voice will be heard.

1 comment:

mackyton said...

I agree that money can’t change everything. You know when I booked a grand conference room for my official annual meeting, everyone was really surprised how I can book a nice space in such a limited budget. Thanks to planner who helped me to find such a space.