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Monday, December 20, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete: Special Monday Edition

The weekly round of track-centric Monday morning quarterbacking comes a day late, as I was on vacation in Toronto for the weekend.

What did we learn this week?

USATF announced its CEO job description. This is actually an important part of the search for a new leader. You can read it in a USATF release. What you think of it tells a lot about what you think of USATF's board of directors.

It was written by the search firm hired by USATF, Bialla & Associates. Their services come at no small cost. If you are of the opinion that their well-into-six-figure price tag is merely "ripping off a hopelessly clueless 'amateur' sports organization", as one TFN message board observer put it, then you come down squarely on the side of pessimism. You believe that either this particular board of directors is a bunch of self-serving fools in over their head, or you believe the government-mandated structure of the organization itself makes it essentially incapable of doing much well, if anything.

There is another voice, though, one of cautious optimism. Track writer Larry Eder, for RunBlogRun:
The search firm, Bialla & Company, ( is one of the heaviest hitters in the world of sports, technology and softwear search firms. They have recently done searches as diverse as Electronic Arts, True North (ad agency), (footwear company) and Avenue A Razorfish, one of Nike's ad agencies (digital). That USATF has hired a firm with such stature should also give you, kind reader, an understanding of the increased level of scrutiny that the search for the USATF CEO position has been under.

It is obvious that the current USATF board has increased their level of focus in this current search. That is to applauded. The current head hunter firm has already spoken to many in the industry, first to get an appreciation for the nature of the business, and secondly to get an appreciation for the concern that many in the industry have on who will lead USA Track & Field. They have heard several earfuls, I suspect. (Bialla & Company, as is their practice, would not comment on current searches or their culture.) Those are all good things, and give comfort to those who are concerned about who will lead our sport's federation.

However well meaning, in my humble opinion, the most recent search for the recently deposed CEO had undercurrents of pressure. It has to be said that the USOC had considerable interest in the most recent CEO of USATF. That does not mean that the USOC has explicit influence on the most recent candidate, but the USOC needs were known and considered in the process. General requirements were; someone entrepreneurial, but someone who was not of the track & field ilk, and someone who looked the part seem have been part of the zeitgeist.

Looking for someone who spoke his mind should not be translated as someone who is incapable of taking advice or estranging every group within the sport. Those are not qualities of a CEO who will last in this sport.
Eder has been around for a while and is no Pollyanna. If he feels that even some signs are positive, we should have reason for hope.

In general terms, the new CEO should really split the difference between the USOC preference of three years ago and the presumed Board of Directors preference of that moment: outsider (no ties to USATF) but insider (within the track & field world). Note that USATF, and its predecessor track division within the AAU, have had just three leaders in the last 40 years. Only one, Craig Masback, left things better at his departure than at his arrival--and he fits that description.

Meets searching for an audience are turning to team competition. Earlier in the week, Athletics Weekly editor Jason Henderson wrote that cross country is in crisis in the UK and most of northern Europe. At almost the same time, northern Europe's only truly relevant cross country meet, the Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross, announced a fantastic idea. They relegated the African runners, who most of the British public sees as nameless and interchangable, to a 4k race. The featured 8k race is now a team competition between the UK, the USA, and the European continent. The UK will have the services of its two best runners, Mo Farah and Chris Thompson. The USA will send two of its best in Dathan Ritzenhein and Galen Rupp. Europe will have nine-time Euro XC champ Sergey Lebid. It should be a bang-up race and will likely gain a great deal of attention in England and Scotland.

Just a few hours ago, the Millrose Games announced that it will have a USA versus Jamaica component in both the men's and women's 60 meter races. The only star yet announced is Veronica Campbell-Brown, but her presence alone will likely excite New York's large Jamaican-American community. If they come out in significant numbers, Millrose will have its biggest attendance in a generation.

The Laverne Jones-Ferrette situation became both more and less clear. The journeywoman sprinter raised some eyebrows during the 2010 indoor season. Never a Worlds or Olympics finalist, she lept to the top of the sprinting world. She recorded the fastest 60m time in eleven years, traded wins with Carmelita Jeter, and took silver at the World Indoor Championships behind Veronica Campbell-Brown. Such a huge and sudden improvement for a 28-year-old is unusual to say the least. Then, she inexplicably missed the entire outdoor season.

A month ago it was announced that she is pregnant, and that was why she missed the summer season. But this didn't seem to wash, unless she quit very early in her pregnancy. She was announced as an entry into multiple April relay meets, and then pulled out.

Now we got a bit more information. On February 16 she tested positive for clomiphene. What is that? It's present in some fertility drugs. It also blocks the effects of estrogen and can be used as a recovery drug towards the end of a steroid cycle. In any case, it is classified as a "specified substance" under WADA rules, and the IAAF's rules are flexible in terms of penalties for this kind of drug. Suspension can be anywhere from zero to two years. Jones-Ferrette got a six-month ban from April to October, but also was disqualified from all of her events after the positive test. So she loses her Worlds silver.

Did she pull one over on the IAAF? Maybe. Note that if you're using a drug for a legitimate reason, there are "theraputic use exemptions". At the very least, you should declare the medication when tested. Jones-Ferrette did not. You be the judge.

Track is getting into the big-money advertisments. Haile Gebrselassie just filmed a commercial for Johnnie Walker (picking up a nifty $100,000 for his trouble). You can see it here. Unfortunately, it probably won't be aired in the USA, as it is targeted towards Africa, Latin America and Europe. I've always thought we've lost out massively by not somehow tapping into beer as a sponsor.

High school meets are upping their game. The professional level of track and road running in the USA has had little in the way of new ideas lately. College track's regular season until recently was essentially unwatchable (with the exception of a handful of relay meets) but has done a lot to make itself more interesting. But the most innovative, competitive level of track meet promotion is at the high school level. For proof one need look no further than the cross country war being waged between Foot Locker Cross Country and Nike Cross Nationals.

Yesterday I was contacted by the director of a prominent high school post-season invitational in regards to ideas for taking it up a notch. I appreciate the gesture and hope I can offer up some good ideas. It really appears as though he takes track and field seriously as a spectator sport, which is the approach you absolutely must have to succeed in today's sports marketplace.

Just this week, Brooks announced a new national indoor invitational for the fastest high schoolers in the country. Called the PR Invitational, it will be held in late February at the University of Washington and will be live on Flotrack. And its promotional video is one of the most bizarre things I've seen in a while.

Track is everywhere. Just like Mojo Nixon says about Elvis.

My wife and I went to Toronto for the weekend to celebrate her 40th birthday. We did all the touristy things and had a great time. On Sunday we were searching for one last thing to see, and settled on Casa Loma. All the travel guides said it was a must-see, and it did not disappoint.

Casa Loma
is a giant mansion built between 1911 and 1914 on a high hill overlooking downtown Toronto, and at the time it was the largest private residence in all of Canada. The man who had it built was one Sir Henry Pellatt, a prominent Toronto financier and soldier who, among other things, electrified the city. Owning it eventually left him penniless, and it is now a museum open to the public.

The house should really be called a castle, as that is what it was built to look like. From the inside, it is best described as the Boddy Mansion from the classic Clue board game come to life. It has a billiard room and a conservatory and all the other rooms in the game, a pipe organ, several suits of armor, secret passageways, and everything else you can imagine from prototypical country-house whodunits best ridiculed in Murder By Death. Touring it was thoroughly entertaining and informative, and I can only imagine the fun they have there at Halloween.

The third floor is rather plain in comparison to the rest, as it was the servants' quarters. These days it's set aside as space reservable for private functions, as well as a repository of historical artifacts relating to The Queen's Own Rifles, a still-existing military regiment in which Henry Pellatt played a major role.

Tucked away in display case in a quiet corner of one room are a few items belonging to Pellatt from his early military days. Most, like a saddle and a pommel, are related to horsemanship, so most observers would think this photo and two medals are related to racing of the four-legged kind.
(Forgive the quality; all I had available was my iPhone.)

Both the left and the right say Pellatt won championship mile races, and I immediately knew they could only be footraces. The clothing in which he is pictured was common running garb of the time, which is one clue. The other is the engraving on the 1879 medal: "N.A.A.A.A." That's the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America, the governing body for track and field in the USA from 1879 until being muscled out by the AAU in 1889. Pellatt, a Canadian, was able to win the US championship because virtually all 19th-century meets were open to any amateur. His time, 4:43.4, was fairly competitive for its time. You can see Pellatt listed at Track and Field News' archive of US champions (scroll waaay down). A recent biography of Pellatt says it was a world record, but don't be fooled -- the amateur record at the time stood at 4:24 1/2, the professional at 4:17 1/4.

Keep your eyes peeled. Track is everywhere and it is in everything.

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