Thursday, February 12, 2009

The USATF Task Force Report

USATF CEO Doug Logan recently released the Task Force Report on the state of Track and Field in the United States. This report was created by a nine member task force that included former athlete Carl Lewis, current athlete Deena Kastor, and longtime coach Mel Rosen, among others, and had some very harsh criticism of the operation of the sport here in the United States.

After examining the sixty nine page report I have some mixed feelings regarding its findings. While I am in favor of the overall position of the report - that the sport needs serious reworking here in the US - I think there are some fundamental flaws underlying the report that would inhibit overall progress towards attaining the goals of the report.

First, there is far too much criticism leveled at the athletes for their "lack of professionalism". Specifically they are criticized for "poor career decisions" because support teams are in charge of the athletes; they don't choose their seasons in advance; agents choose the athletes instead of vice versa; and shoe companies choose their coaches for them".

While I have found these things to be true of our athletes, it is due to the global structure and culture of the sport, not the general lack of professionalism, that our athletes find themselves in this position of the sport controlling them instead of them controlling their own careers! Though track and field is considered to be a "professional sport" due to the fact that athletes are now paid to compete, the sport globally is still operated in the same "amateur" mode that existed in the 1970's and prior where athletes are invited to participate in meets by meet promoters; arrangements are handled through managers/agents; and shoe companies pay the bulk of the "salaries" of the athletes.

Until the overall sport gets restructured, the basic complaint that USATF and its international teams - including World and Olympic squads - are not the priority of the athletes will continue to hold true. Because in its current structure loyalty to one's country takes a back seat to making an income in track and field. So it is my recommendation that concurrently with trying to clean up the sport here in the United States USATF try to work with the IAAF on creating a more Federation and Athlete friendly environment for the athletes to participate in. That ultimately will require a restructuring of how meets are conducted/operated and how payments are made to athletes. The end goal being a "salary structure" that will have to incorporate the IAAF/Meet Promoters/Shoe Companies/Federations on one side as "Ownership/Management" and the Athletes/Agents/Managers/Proposed Union on the other side as "Employees".

A restructuring of the sport and redistribution of payments will make it inherently easier for the athletes to focus on the needs of the federation, because a restructured system would allow a now "salaried" athlete to attend to the needs of the group as opposed to selectively "running for dollars" meet after meet.

The other major flaw that I see in the basic structure/comments of the report is the singular focus on the Olympics. The priority seems to be Olympic Qualification, Olympic Teams, Olympic Staff, Olympic Medals, etc. While there is no doubt that the Olympics are, and have been, the ultimate competition on the planet, track and field has THREE global championships every quadrennial period with the sport having two World Championships during that time frame to go with each Olympics. And during the "down year" there is a World Cup in which we have served as a regular participant.

My point is that we need to be looking at ANNUAL goals and not just towards the next Olympic Games in 2012. We need to be looking at creating a "structure" that will work year after year and incorporate consistency with a sense of urgency on the part of all elements of our programs. Especially in the areas of team selection, coaching placement, and athlete development.

To look at the Olympics as a "separate" piece of the puzzle retains the "amateur" view of the Olympics as the end goal, instead of a more "professional" game plan that says we have annual championships and goals to shoot for, and that our athletes must be properly paid for their participation - just like all the other Major professional sports.

With some adjustments in those areas, I believe the sport is then in a better position to try to attain the goals set forth in the Task Force Report. Following are the opening statements of the Key Findings of the Task Force followed by my own comments:

• Overall there is a lack of accountability, professionalism, and cohesion in the areas the Task Force studied.

There is no doubt that when I look at the structure of USATF that it gives the appearance of several different organizations trying to function as one. The sport needs a more business like organizational chart with clear lines of responsibility and reporting - which should result in better overall communication. Like wise it should employ a coaching staff consisting of the best coaches available here in the US. Unfortunately these individuals are paid by the shoe companies and the athletes and only come to USATF on a volunteer basis - and with competing interests. So until global structure is addressed/rectified I see this as an ongoing difficulty.

• The International Team Staff selection system lacks transparency and accountability, creating a culture of mistrust for athletes and coaches alike.

This too has a direct link to the overall structure of the sport. As long as the coaches are paid by someone other than the federation they will serve in a volunteer capacity. With everyone essentially "eligible" to serve, and many "wanting" to serve, there will always be questions as to "why" selections were made and positions given.

Transparency could be achieved through the creation of selection criteria that would be based on coaching achievements - i.e. Olympic , World, NCAA, Pan Am, and "other" medalists - with a point system being developed to give greater weight to "Major" competitions and "averaged" over the number of years one has coached so as not to too heavily skew against younger coaching talent.

• International staffs need more managers and fewer coaches.

Given the current structure where the majority of athletes have their own personal coaches, this is quite true. The question I have is will "coaches" want to serve in the capacity of "managers", or will we then see more veteran coaches opting out?

• The criteria for selecting track and field's Olympic Team should not change but the Olympic Trials themselves should.

As stated earlier the focus here should be on National Teams and not just the Olympic Team. Having said that, compressing the meet and reducing recovery time for those athletes that compete in multiple events could be detrimental to their health. The US Trials system is tough not because of its length but because of the level of competition that individuals must contend with.

One solution could be to hold the meet over the course of a week (7 days) as a mid range compromise and reduce fields to eliminate the "opening round". Thus creating what would amount to three rounds of "quarterfinal", "semifinal", and "final" rounds.

More important, in my opinion, is the length of time between our Trials and the Major competition. One of the big problems that I believe created such poor performances in Beijing was the short rest period between the Trials and the Games themselves - approximately six weeks. A very short period to attempt to gain rest from a meet the level of the Trials themselves. Nearly impossible to allow athletes that have suffered injuries or niggles, time to recover, rehab, and gain enough competition to get sharp before having to compete again at that level.

We should be looking at somewhere between eight to ten weeks between Trials and Major. This would allow for a more complete "rest" period and give injured athletes more time to both rehab AND get sharp through competition.

On the subject of trying to create some sort of "bye" for "special" athletes, while difficult I do believe it is manageable. An athlete deemed too "injured" to compete in an event by medical staff could get a "bye" into the Major if the average of his/her top three times from the previous season is at least .5% faster than the third place mark at the trials. In the event that more than one person fits that criteria, then the athlete with the greatest percentage average better than third at the Trials meet will be awarded the position. This would create the possibility that a clearly outstanding athlete would still have the ability to be named to the team but NOT replace an athlete that competed superbly at the Trials.

• Excessive travel and poor long-term planning on the part of athletes, their coaches and agents appear to be the greatest controllable factors negatively affecting TEAM USA performance in Beijing.

As stated previously in discussing the Olympic Trials, I feel that the greatest negative factor affecting our performances in Beijing was the proximity of our Trials meet to the Games themselves. Our athletes had to compete in the equivalent of two back to back Games within a six week timeframe. Not nearly enough time to recover and compete again at that level - certainly not enough time for the injured to rehab and prepare.

More importantly to the point of the Task Force's finding, there is an unrealistic expectation of USA Track and Field regarding athletes working their schedules to fit the needs of USATF. As stated at the beginning of this post, the current structure of the sport dictates that the athletes' first responsibility is to compete to earn a living - and those competitions are dictated by meet promoters, and agents outside of the control of USATF, or any other federation.

In truth, the Olympics and World Championships are in direct competition with the needs of the athlete to earn a living. Yes, no other meets are run during the roughly two week period of the Olympics or World Championships, but there are meets just before and right after. In the weeks between the Trials meet and the Games or Worlds, a large portion of the highest paying meets of the year are held . This year Lausanne, Rome, Athens, Paris, Monaco, Stockholm, and Berlin will all be held after the Trials meet and before the World Championships - with Zurich and Gateshead coming shortly after. To ask athletes to forgo meets with this type of earning ability in the name of loyalty to their federation is a bit arrogant and very unfair.

This is how these athletes earn their living - running in meets of this caliber. They compete to earn a living and their best living is earned by competing in these meets. As such, the current financial structure of the sport places an emphasis on competing in the most lucrative meets - and unfortunately the sport's championship meets do NOT fall in this category. And to use the phrase, "they must keep their eye on the prize - an Olympic medal" smacks very much of an old world amateur view of the sport.

Therefore, as stated previously, USATF needs to work with the IAAF to try and create a better payment system for the athletes. One that would hopefully incorporate them as partners in an Employer/Employee relationship. Until that occurs, USATF is reliant upon the athletes' sense of loyalty to country without acknowledging that they are in the sport to earn a living. And as Logan and others are finding those two needs are often at odds with one another.

• Spending more than $1 million in the last six years, and with as many as 173 athletes taking part in it each year, the National Relay Program has failed to justify the costs of the program.

No argument here. But the second point should be included here before discussing the US Relay system. That point being.

• Lack of communication between coaches and athletes, poor management of the relay pools and questions over which coaches were responsible for relays resulted in the 4x100 relay failures in Beijing.

Here we have an opportunity to talk about what is REALLY wrong with the whole relay process here in the US - and again it comes back to the structure of the sport. Our "national" team is the equivalent of a "pick up team" at any local park. Its various "parts" are individuals that separately must go out and try to earn a living in between the Trials meet and the Championship meet. Since most meets only have room for eight athletes in any given competition; and since most meets do not run a full complement of events; and since most meets only offer top dollar to a handful of athletes at any given competition; it is not easy to find all relay pool members at the same meets at the same time. Athletes have to schedule themselves at the competitions that suit their earning ability, not necessarily that gives them the opportunity to work with "teammates".

As I discussed above, coaches are tied to the athletes and NOT to USATF. This leads to two inherent problems. One is the availability of coaches to work with ALL of the athletes in the pool. The other is the lack of impartiality in selecting and utilizing pool members on the squads themselves. Coaches, and agents/managers lobbying behind the scenes, are most interested in how they can position their athletes on squads to earn them the most money Post Major. This is in direct conflict with selecting and placing athletes in the positions in which they can BEST serve the squad. It is this conflict that in Beijing and with unnerving frequency in past Majors, has placed less than optimal squads on the track for the US.

I think this can be easily rectified. First off relay coaches should be both impartial AND have a strong working knowledge of relay structure and integration. That would indicate to me that collegiate coaches and not the coaches of elite athletes should be selected to run relay teams. College coaches work on relay squads for a living, and best know the ins and outs of putting a squad together.

Collegiate coaches wishing to work on Major Championships relay squads should submit their resumes and letters of interest to USATF prior to the Trials Selection meet. Within a week of the close of the Trials meet USATF should select a four coach team - two for the 4x1 and two for the 4x4 - to be made up of coaches NOT coaching athletes that made the team in an individual event. These coaches will then be given the autonomy to select their final teams and run their practices. It will be the responsibility of the coaching teams to get with pool members and their management to coordinate a one week period within 30 days of the Major Championship at which time members of the pool will get together for Final relay work. Prior to that, it will be the responsibility of the coaching pool to get together with team members individually or in small groups to work on the details of how the relay will be run and conduct "mini" practices where the opportunity is presented.

This Relay Coaching Team will report directly to the CEO of USA Track and Field and not to the lead coach of the National Team. This will create better autonomy for the relay coaches and hopefully prevent undo influence being exerted on these coaches by other members of the coaching fraternity.

• American coaches and athletes under utilize the facilities and USATF sport science available to them.

From my own personal search on the USATF website, it is impossible to find any information on the USATF Training Centers. That could be a large reason why they are under utilized. I know from past experience that there are centers in Chula Vista, Colorado Springs, and I believe Orlando Florida. As such they are not centrally located to the areas where the primary "camps" of our elite athletes are located.

With most elite athletes utilizing major college campuses for training purposes where available, it might be advantageous for USATF to try and work out deals with some regional major colleges for joint use of facilities to serve as training centers for our athletes. This would ensure that there are facilities nearer the athletes for their use, but could also be used to build alliances with strong collegiate programs that serve as "feeders" into the elite program. It could also create more of a partnership with coaches tied to current and future members of USATF National Teams.

As for the dissemination of information related to research in the sport, a simple email mailing list should be able to facilitate and expedite the distribution of this information to coaches and athletes. Likewise periodic surveys would produce information on what information is being utilized and how it is being implemented. This too could be conducted by email and would provide needed insight into both what information is useful, as well as what areas of research might be under developed.

• Inroads have been made into catching and punishing doping cheats, but more must be done to strengthen the anti-doping culture.

This statement holds true only if USATF, USADA, and its affiliated agencies are taking credit for the weeding out of the sport that has occurred recently by the BALCO investigation. Since this investigation was not run by any of these entities, but was rather an investigative operation conducted by the US Federal Government, it is actually more appropriate to say that very little has been done by the anti-doping arm of the sport to eliminate cheating.

We learned from BALCO that the phrase, "I never failed a drug test", means virtually nothing in this age of designer/non detectable drugs. We also learned that beating the current testing system as implemented by the IAAF and its member federations is easy and routinely done.

While I laud the implementation of "Project Believe" last year as a nice start to implementing a better drug testing plan, until we move away from Urinalysis as our primary method of drug testing to something both more reliable and adaptable, like Blood Testing, the sport will forever be behind the chemists and the cheats in the war against doping.

I have developed a testing plan based on Blood Testing that I will post on this site in a few days. I hope that USATF and others will give it strong consideration as it moves forward in the battle against drug cheats.

• American athletes as a group do not conduct themselves as true professionals and USATF does not hold them to professional standards.

This brings us full circle to the beginning of this post. As I have stated several times now, what USATF seems to consider a lack of professionalism is the athletes working within the framework of the sport as it currently exists globally. This sport is the athlete's avocation, not merely a form of recreation. As such they have to work within the structure as presented to try and earn a living.

This structure of shoe companies controlling contracts; meet promoters controlling where athletes run and their payments; mangers/agents serving as the intermediaries to facilitate when and where athletes are able to compete; and coaches being paid by a combination of shoes companies and athletes; is at odds with what USATF deems to be its need to have the athletes and their coaches be responsive to it in its pursuit of Olympic medals.

In order for this to change there must be structural changes on a global level within the sport that would put USATF and other federations in more of an employer/partnership role with athletes and coaches. As it currently stands it is unrealistic for USATF to expect the athletes to set aside their best earning opportunities in favor of the nationalistic goal of attaining medals for the United States.

While I think the suggestion of the creation of an Athletes' Union is a good one, I believe it only scratches the surface of the changes necessary in the sport to ensure that the athletes receive adequate payments for their services AND puts them in a better position to work on behalf of USATF. Hopefully the sport can begin to work on these issues.

I applaud the effort of USATF and the development of this report. It is a good first step towards making the sport better. Hopefully Mr. Logan and others can begin to look past the trees and out into the forest to create better second and third steps and move this sport closer towards true professionalism.

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