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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Response to the Task Force Report

I've taken some time to decide what I think about the Project 30 Task Force Report, after reading the reactions of others.

One of the most basic things people say is whether or not the whole thing was even justified. Was our Olympic performance actually disappointing? If so, were the factors that led to it influenced by USATF managerial policy?

A good number of those responses in the press, both print an electronic, answer "no" to either the first or the second. Alberto Salazar called the task force "an overreaction to a couple of dropped batons". Let's Run co-founder Weldon Johnson said "the fact of the matter is USATF had as much to do with Walter Dix's two medals in Beijing as it did with Richard Thompson's two sprint medals. Which is to say, 'Nothing.'"

It's entirely possible that the Olympic team, as a whole, had unusually poor luck. Shit happens, and coaches know there are times that everything just goes wrong. I think many of the high hopes for Beijing were due to this Olympics coming on the heels of an unusually successful World Championships, which may also have been just plain dumb luck.

But I don't think this task force was assembled just because of to two botched relays, or even a (supposed) Olympic debacle. I think those were merely the pretext for a thorough and honest self-examination. It's pretty apparent that track & field in this country is in need of a reworking, and USATF especially. With a new CEO coming in—one with little prior connection to T&F, and no favors to repay—it was the time to examine vested interests. So take things that come from domestic observers of the sport with a grain of salt, because hardly any of them are impartial. When your sport gets a minimum of press coverage, those who give it are generally highly invested (examples: Eugene Register-Guard, Track & Field News).

As for the criticisms of the recommendations, they are many and varied. The whole report has been criticized for being overly concerned with the Olympics to the exclusion of all else, and for being solely concerned with the medal count. But the name of the task force—Project 30—is in reference to a medal count for the next Olympics. Furthermore, USATF's congressional mandate under the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, the law that created it as a separate entity from the AAU, is to maximize medal counts at international championships, the Olympics in particular. So its focus comes by the nature of the beast.

The #1 outcry in response to recommendations has been over the call to shorten the Olympic Trials. The report cited undue stress on athletes (physical, emotional, financial) as the compelling reason, whereas the critics deny such stress exists and finds significant reason to keep things as they are. Those are basically financial; the host site recouping costs from ticket sales, and USATF/USOC revenue from TV coverage, both of which would be significantly reduced in a shorter Trials. Others simply want more domestic track & field instead of less.

As I see it, the important question is Why do we do things this way? The task force asked it, and the only reason they came up with was "money". We pick Worlds teams at four-day national championship meets and suffer no drop in performance for it. Remember, USATF's congressional mandate is to maximize Olympic medals, not maximize revenue, and so the task force didn't see money as a good reason to keep an extended Trials schedule.

From an athlete's perspective, the single biggest difference between the Olympic Trials and the USATF Championships in a non-Olympic year is not the number of days, but the number of rounds athletes have to run. At the Trials, a sprinter must run four rounds (heats, quarters, semis, finals), as opposed to three at the USATF. A miler must run three rounds at the Trials versus two at USATF; for the 5k it's two at the Trials instead of finals-only at USATF. Tyson Gay and Bernard Lagat were subjected to considerably more stress at the 2008 Trials (when they both subsequently bombed at the Olympics) than they did at the 2007 USATF Championships (when they both went on to win World Championships doubles). The extra stress may not have been why they bombed, but it sure didn't help. The task force was interested in removing obstacles to success, and they saw this as one.

A split-the-baby approach? Keep an 8-day Trials format with far greater entrants in each event than at the USATF Championships, but give the best running-event athletes a bye to the second round. The top eight in each event (as determined by qualifying time) would get seeded directly into the second round. The athletes most likely to compete for medals at the Olympics are given less stress, while the long-shots still have a chance at the team and the fans and media still have their big Olympic Trials. I can see a criticism that it's not a "fair" system as the byes amount to a head start, but these guys did earn them, just not at the Trials proper.

Tomorrow I'll tackle more of the report and what the critics are saying.

1 comment:

pjm said...

Nicely put, sir. Yours is the first reaction I've read (other than my own, natch) which draws the connection between Olympic medals and USATF's funding, and I didn't pick up on the charter part.

Lots of reactions, particularly from the Oregon press, just picked individual suggestions that gored their own favorite sacred cow and objected to the whole report on that principle, as though it's going to be adopted wholesale. And a few thought that the report itself was expected accomplish something, which would be pretty impressive for a document written by a number of people without official power.

The report doesn't do anything. It's a tool, as you said. The interesting part of the whole circus is going to be how Logan uses the tool.