Same Old USA Track & Field

First, thank you for the many nice notes of support sent to me via my website after my initial blog. Means a great deal!

It was the 2004 Olympic Trials in Sacramento. After straining a hamstring in the prelims, I chose not to run the final. The decision was based on the severity of the injury as well as our interpretation of complicated rules, along with consultation with US Team Coaches. The conclusion was that I still had a very good chance to make the team without running and risking further injury. Moments after the final, I was told by my USA Team event coach that she could confirm that I was indeed on the Olympic Team. I remember asking, “are you certain?” “Absolutely”, she said.

Obviously, this was welcome news. I was rushed to processing where I was fitted for my Olympic uniform, took my USA Olympic Team photo, was congratulated by several of the USATF higher-ups, and did a couple of interviews discussing the good news, etc. (as a side note, I received a note from President Bush weeks later congratulating me on making the US Olympic Team). Hey, “I’m blessed,” I thought. (I’m not here to debate whether I deserved automatic qualification).

So long story short, I was told very late that evening via phone call from the Head Coach of the Olympic Team that a mistake had been made. I was not on the team automatically after all. In fact, the circumstances as they were described to me made the chances very slim. Well, needless to say, I went ballistic. Cruel beyond belief I thought (You have to understand how big making an Olympic Team is to someone who lived for it). If I had known this, I would have given it a go, regardless of the pain & risk. Somebody screwed up, but the attitude of this coach is that I should have known the rules.  I was solely to blame. Should I have been able to decipher the rules myself? Perhaps, but it was clear that nobody had a grasp on them at the time.

Ok, so all of that is pretty bad, right? Here’s the worst part, and it‘s where politics and lack of transparency come into play. When contacted by media about the news, the Head Coach, a USA Track and Field hire of course, denied I was ever told I made the team, by anybody. Let’s just say I swear on my life that I was. These coaches knew it, my personal coach knew it, I knew it, and USATF knew it. The event coach who had originally told me of the good news went with “no comment” publicly. When asked later by my coach as to why, she apparently stated that she had been instructed by higher-ups at USATF to do so for fear that she would never be selected to coach a national team again. Here was USATF damage control, covering their butts at the athlete’s expense.

So why do I bring this up now? Old news, nobody cares about at this point. And know that I’m not playing victim here or going for the “woe is me” thing. I’m just trying to raise awareness. It’s been 10 years since these events, but I hope it shows what this organization was and is obviously still capable of. The common theme has always been self-preservation, passing the blame. Meanwhile, athletes get screwed; the sport continues to go downhill, etc.

I’ve taken note of events this year relating to USA Track & Field where my reaction has been, “same shit, different day.” The Gabriele Grunewald & Andrew Bumbalough fiascos at Indoor Nationals (http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/grunewald-reinstated-as-3000-meter-champ) and the bizarre choice of busted drug cheats to serve as coaches of the US National Team come to mind. If decision-making is this questionable, transparency non-existent, and the perception of  “politics as usual” so prevalent, how can you trust an organization to effectively run your sport?

Now let me preface this by saying that it’s wrong to paint a broad brush of condemnation towards USATF as a whole. I’m looking at the top, the decision makers. There are plenty of good, well meaning people within its ranks, both nationally and locally, doing good things. I think in particular of the many volunteers I came to know at events, many still at it. They went mostly unnoticed and unappreciated, but I sure appreciated them. Always there to offer assistance or a smile, just when I needed it. They are the passionate supporters of our sport.

I know, who am I to cast stones? But my criticism is designed to simply show that the presence of politics and lack of transparency has been going on forever, and will continue unless the athletes demand change. I want to see things improve for current & future athletes. Current top athletes often feel uncomfortable speaking out and making demands for fear of some kind of backlash from the Association. I’m convinced of that. But whether it’s credible rumors of drug cover-ups back when USATF conducted the drug testing of it’s member athletes, unbelievably poor marketing of the sport, or misrepresentation of the athletes, things really never change unless those most interested DO something about it. I encourage you to check out and join the Track & Field Athletes Association. (http://trackandfieldathletesassociation.org/site/). Their mission is to support professional T&F Athletes worldwide and as part of that, put pressure on USATF to be better. Step it up USATF!