Monday, March 10, 2014

Editorial: Talk is Cheap

In one sense this past weekend was an abundance of riches in the sport of "Athletics" as it is called in Europe.  In Sopot, Poland the IAAF held it's World Indoor Championships.  On the west coast of the US, the host of the 2016 US Olympic Marathon trials, conducted its annual LA Marathon.  On the east coast in Landover, Maryland more than 45 age group records were set at the USATF Youth Indoor track & field Championships. At the University of Minnesota, the USATF Minnesota Association Indoor Championships were held.  At Brits Pub in Minneapolis a group of track fans got together to watch the final day of the World Championships.

At the conclusion of the IAAF meet, Alan Abrahamson wrote a column detailing his observations of the commercial health of the sport of track and field in the current sports marketplace(You can read Alan's piece HERE).  Alan's views on the demise of a sport that was once the "crown jewel" of the Olympic Games is shared by many, if not most, in the sports industry.  Yet, how can this be?  A sport with such widespread participation gets scant attention on the US and world sports pages.  It's brightest star, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, is estimated to earn in a year what a professional golfer can win by capturing the title in a season ending series of a few golf tournaments.

The short answer is that as a participatory sport, track and road running are "healthy."  People still pay handsomely to run in everything from miles to marathons on the roads.  High school track and cross country have a similar robust participant profile.  At the college level and beyond, however, the cracks begin to appear.  Colleges and Universities have cut track and/or cross country programs due to "budget issues," they are non-revenue sports in athletic departments that are led by the sports that generate revenue or are portrayed as revenue producers in terms of helping to generate graduate donor contributions.

My alma mater, where I had one teammate who won an Olympic gold medal and another who was the US recordholder in the steeplechase, no longer has a men's track team.  It's not alone.  The schools that do have programs have little money to use to offer scholarships to the top high school talent.  You have to be near Olympic caliber to get a full scholarship, and most of the athletes in that category can now get more money in a deal with a sporting goods company, rather than from a college athletic scholarship.  Thus a professional career for an aspiring track athlete is a risky proposition at best.

Thankfully there are operations, such as Team USA Minnesota, that keep "the dream alive," attempt to provide support for those who want to pursue their athletic ambitions.   But as Abrahamson and others have pointed out the sport as a commercial property, a brand, has fallen far short of the competition in the athletic/entertainment marketplace.  As Stillwater grad, Ben Blankenship, joked when he finally opened his Twitter account, he's an analog man in a digital world.

In the sports world, track has remained an analog sport in a digital world. Abrahamson characterizes the sport as a circus where all the acts from the lion tamers to the trapeze artists are presented simultaneously instead of as part of a professional production aimed at a target audience.  This was graphically illustrated by the handling of the biggest story to come out of the USA Indoor Championships a couple of weeks ago.  No, it wasn't about the strong team being sent to the World Championships, it was about a protest in the women's 3K.

The story was so big largely because it was seemingly handled behind closed doors.  There wasn't then, nor has there been since, complete explanations of the facts in the case. What remain are the competing versions/interpretations of rules that prolonged the matter and created a firestorm of negative reaction and criticism from the athletes.  Athletes who all felt threatened by the way the matter was handled because they feared the same thing could happen to them.

And, sure enough, at the IAAF Championships this weekend at least three athletes were disqualified. Their transgression--they stepped on or inside the pole lane that determines the shortest distance one can run around the track.  Heather Kampf, Nick Willis, and the Polish bronze medal winner in the men's 800 all were DQed for the same offense--R 163.3 (b).   Kampf's offending foot plant came before, but was not the cause of, her fall. Willis appealed that he was forced to make the misstep by another runner cutting in, and I don't know if the Polish runner had an explanation for his mistake.

Why this happened in three distance events or was even considered a disqualifying offense at the meet is something of a mystery.  But when USATF CEO Max Segal intervened to help reach a solution to the US champs 3K protest, he vowed to take a look at the issue of protests within USATF and make changes if necessary.

The TFAA and USATF personnel are scheduled to have a conference call to talk about solutions.  There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the protest issue, which also includes the DQ in the men's 3K.  And the protest issue is really part of a larger problem of a lack of trust among the athletes of the sports administration to create a climate that is more "athlete friendly."  The fact remains that information as simple as the meet schedule, how many heats there will be, etc. were and have been a sore point among athletes for some time. For example, at last year's outdoor track championships in the men's 5K a large list of entrants was reduced to a tiny field when there were plenty of eligible athletes still at the competition who could have run the race.

Professional American football teams don't go into the Super Bowl without a virtual minute by minute schedule of the events.  Yet, track and field athletes often don't know until the last minute if there will be heats in their events or just finals.  In some ways the US Indoors protest has opened a door for examination of these sorts of issues and possible solutions.

It's an opportunity for Max Siegel to put his stamp onto the organization, to build bridges with the athletes if he sees them as part of the solution.  Build consensus instead of division.  Talk is cheap, as judgment in these situations rests on actions. 

No comments: