U.S. wins at ballot box, loses in sport at track and field worlds

Philip Hersh
Chicago Tribune
U.S. federation leaders had eyes on wrong prizes: places in IAAF governance rather than on awards podium.

Three days before the World Track and Field Championships began Aug. 22 in Beijing, USA Track & Field sent out a release trumpeting its record success in the international track & field federation (IAAF) elections.

That included USATF President Stephanie Hightower’s election to the IAAF’s 27-member, decision-making council, culminating a year of time-consuming machinations by Hightower and her allies using a realpolitik that would make Machiavelli blush.

But when the athletes under USATF’s aegis finished competing at worlds Sunday, their record was so underwhelming it seems pretty clear the U.S. federation leaders had their eyes on the wrong prizes – places within IAAF governance rather than places on the awards podium.

The U.S. won just 18 total medals, its poorest showing in a global championship (worlds or Olympics) since winning just 16 iat the 2003 worlds.   In the eight meets (five worlds, three Olympics) between 2003 and 2015, the totals had run from 22 to 28.

Also not since 2003 has a U.S. team scored so low in the world meet placing tables, which reward finishes in the top eight, giving a broader picture of depth of talent. The 2015 total, 214 points, was 68 below that for the 2013 world meet; the number of top-eight finishes, 46, was 11 fewer than 2013.

And for the first time, which means all the way back to 1896, a U.S. team went without a men’s gold medal in an individual track event at an Olympics or worlds.

Not the best of omens with the next Olympics less than a year away.

"Overall, that’s where we are as a team," USATF Chief Public Affairs Officer Jill Geer said Sunday at a news conference.  "We’re not pushing any panic buttons."

You can look at this as a glass half full: The U.S. track and field team has done better in the following year’s Olympics than it had in the worlds five of the last seven times – the only drops were 1999-to-2000 (which gets an asterisk explained below) and 2007-08.

Or as a sort-of-half-full glass: This would have matched the third-lowest U.S. medal total since 1896 were it not for all the U.S. medals later stripped for doping: four at the 2003 worlds (20 to 16), six in 2001 (19 to 13), five at the 2000 Olympics (20 to 15), one at the 1997 worlds (18 to 17).  No U.S. doping cases from Beijing so far.

To blame the Beijing shortcomings largely on Hightower and the USATF’s chief executive, Max Siegel, would be unfair.

But there is a feeling the time they used stacking the USATF board (and flouting the general membership’s wishes) to make Hightower the IAAF Council candidate could have been more profitably spent on both overseeing and better supporting financially what their best athletes needed, especially since Hightower is a volunteer with a full-time job as president / CEO of the Columbus, Ohio Urban League.

Then there was all the effort USATF spent alienating athletes with an our-way-or-the-highway letter telling world team members to pack only “Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel” and implying there was no place or time they could wear other branded apparel.

That led Nick Symmonds, the 2013 world silver medalist and six-time U.S. champion (including this year) at 800 meters, whose sponsor is not Nike, to stay home rather than agree to the restrictions in the letter, which USATF clarified only after he raised a stink.

USATF sold its soul to Nike in a sponsorship deal extending to 2040 and worth an estimated $500 million – not that there was exactly a bidding war. The lack of commercial competition for the general rights to U.S track and field exacerbates the declining interest in sponsoring individual athletes.

Nike’s hegemony, as Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden pointed out in a recent column about the Symmonds situation, "reduces the incentive for other companies to sponsor athletes because, essentially, they would be extending not only their own brand, but Nike’s, which is poor business. Hence, fewer companies sign track and field athletes to sponsorship deals. . .and according to (distance runner Lauren) Fleshman, Nike has responded to the lack of competition by offering less lucrative contracts."

The amount of money USATF gives directly to athletes also is a point of contention. The federation says it will spend $15.4 million, roughly half its 2015 budget, to support athletes.  It admits no more than $5.1 million is direct support, and critics say the percentage is lower.

Adam Nelson, an Olympic and world shot put champion, has been focused on these issues for several years, most recently as an officer of the Track & Field Athletes Association, formed to "support the rights and interests of professional track athletes." Nelson thinks funding discrepancies are becoming especially telling at global events.

"The funding model for athletes in the U.S. doesn't support great performances at the major championships," Nelson said in a text message.  "It instead supports a larger administrative staff and other obligations beyond high level performances at the majors.

"As long as athletes in the U.S. have to choose global (invitational) competition to monetize third party endorsement contracts, the performance of US athletes at major competitions will largely be an afterthought and inconsistent. USATF could choose to reward athletes with a greater direct financial incentive tied to performance at the majors to make the math more in line with increasing medal counts."

The U.S. performance in Beijing was not without stirring highlights:

--Ashton Eaton’s guts-and-glory world record in the decathlon

--The indomitable Allyson Felix winning gold in the 400 and silvers on two relays.

--Underappreciated 2012 Olympic champion Christian Taylor winning a second triple jump world title with the second longest jump ever.

--Aries Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion, taking a high hurdles bronze despite a renal deficiency so severe he is to receive a kidney transplant Tuesday.

--LaShawn Merritt’s masterful anchor leg in the 4x400 relay for the only U.S. relay gold.

And there also was promise in the performances of global senior championship meet rookies Joe Kovacs (shot put gold), Shamier Little (intermediate hurdles silver), Trayvon Brommell and Tori Bowie (bronzes in the 100). Brommell and Little are just 20.

But older athletes – Felix and Merritt, both 29, and Justin Gatlin, 33 – figured in seven of the 18 U.S. medals, and no one has yet emerged to pick up the baton of their long-term individual and relay excellence.

What better way to look at the U.S. shortcomings in Beijing than the usual baton debacle in the men’s 4 x 100 relay, where a U.S. team that included four finalists from the open 100 lost not only a shot to win but its silver medal for a disqualifying final exchange. It was the seventh time in the last 13 worlds a U.S. sprint relay has either failed to get the baton around properly or failed to finish.

Any chance the USA had to make it four-out-of-the-last five in the women’s 4 x 4, this time against a favored Jamaican team, disappeared with the debatable lineup decision for the final that omitted Phyllis Francis and did not have Felix anchor. Francis (7th) and gold medalist Felix had been the only U.S. qualifiers for the open 400 final.

When Sanya Richards-Ross staggered through the opening leg and Francena McCorory came undone at the end, it made a footnote of Felix’s brilliant third leg (a 47.72-second split, third fastest in history behind two times from the 1980s).

Call it karma: in a sport foundering under doping problems, tone deaf USATF grandees quietly made confessed doper Dennis Mitchell the U.S. relay program director this year. That one, you can blame entirely on the leadership.

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