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home > community > viewpoint > olan's reign is over: usatf needs a new king

Olan's Reign Is Over: USATF Needs A New King
"The king is dead. Long live the king." Perhaps Shakespeare is a bit dramatic when speaking of the governance of running, but drama was the order of the day in San Francisco, where the annual USATF national convention was held last week. After a long run as the executive director of USATF, Olan Cassell has been voted out of a job by its board of governors. Almost universally reviled by the movers and shakers in the sport, the amazing thing is not that Cassell is out, but that he managed to last this long to begin with.

  
Olan's Reign Is Over: USATF Needs A New King

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By Don Allison
Posted Sunday, 8 December, 1996

"The king is dead. Long live the king." Perhaps Shakespeare is a bit dramatic when speaking of the governance of running, but drama was the order of the day in San Francisco, where the annual USATF national convention was held last week. After a long run as the executive director of USATF, Olan Cassell has been voted out of a job by its board of governors. Almost universally reviled by the movers and shakers in the sport, the amazing thing is not that Cassell is out, but that he managed to last this long to begin with.

Cassell has been blamed for the demise of track and field in the United States over the past decade or more. " Lacks vision " they say. " Unable to lead the sport in a positive direction. Can't develop the sponsorship money necessary to drive the sport into the 21st century. Played the power card to heavily. Doesn't give a damn about road running. " On and on it goes. Gee, is this the same guy who had his contract renewed just a few short years ago? Olan Cassell may not have been the ideal person to direct the sport of running, but believe this: The " problems " that folks complain our sport is experiencing aren't going to go away with Olan Cassell.

In my former position as director of the New England USATF chapter, I had the chance to meet Mr. Cassell on several occasions. He always seemed to exude an aura of power and intimidation. He is a tall man, still sporting a reasonably similar physique to the one that garnered him a gold medal (400 meter relay) in the 1964 Olympic Games. Despite having had several conversations with Cassell, I was never confident that he even knew or cared who I was, despite the fact that I was directing one of the five largest associations in the USA. His speeches were heavy laden with rhetoric and platitudes. Things were always " moving in the right direction ", or "opening exciting new avenues of opportunity." In short, he seemed liked a guy who was always running for office, which in essence he was.

At each of the four national conventions I attended, Cassell was routinely being blamed for the ills of the sport. But when he came to speak at any of the smaller committee meetings, convention delegates snapped to attention.

I was always suspicious of how issues were decided at the convention. There really are some big doings there. Olympic coaching berths are awarded, national championships at track and field and road races too. It seemed that much of this was activity was already pre-determined before the convention even got started, at smaller committee sessions. The year that USATF changed its name from TAC (The Athletics Congress), logos, T-shirts, and a multi-million dollar merchandising contract to NIKE were already done before a "vote" was taken to pass the name change! When it comes to the convention, there are the "players" and there is everybody else. And a good number of the "players" were not always seemingly on the same page as Olan Cassell.

One clear impression that comes from attending the national USATF convention is the pecking order of sports. Ostensibly the governing body of track and field, road racing, and racewalking, the organization in essence pours the bulk of its energies into track and field. It's like a microcosm of the Olympics on TV: 30 hours of coverage to track, 30 minutes to the distances, and 30 seconds to racewalking.

The irony of this situation is that road running brings in a huge amount of money to the organization. All of the thousands of runners who pay for their USATF cards in order to run the New York City or Boston Marathons (the majority of our readers I would suspect) help fund many cost laden track and field programs, as well as the frustrating layers of bureaucracy emanating out of Indianapolis, the home of USATF. Did Cassell ever really understood the concept that the decentralized sport of road running was carrying the extremely centralized sport of track and field? In all of his years, he certainly never acknowledged that fact.

Many people have suggested that there is really nothing wrong with road running in the USA. Sure, kids are not getting into it like they did in years past, but ours is a sport that attracts adults for the most part. Road races and marathons are in a period of very robust health, as participation in events continues to grow each year. Will a new executive director do anything more to help? It is doubtful. Cassell may not have been personally responsible for the growth in road running, but at least he knew enough to let it develop on its own. Road running will never be a big spectator sport in the USA. It is and always will be participation driven. Who wants to watch it on TV, when you can be outside running?

Track and field is a different story. By creating a fan base, the entire sport will be lifted to a new level. The NBA and professional golf have shown that savvy marketing can create an explosion of interest. This is the area in which Cassell is most culpable. Critics have charged that track has stagnated over the past decade or more, while other sports have grown. This is undeniably true. Drug scandals have eroded the interest in competition. Aside from the Olympics, and world championships to a smaller degree, there is little meaning to meets involving American athletes. The indoor and outdoor circuits? Forget it. NCAA championships? Small time. An executive director with vision can surely help in this area, but it will be a very long road to respectability. And it does make a difference. Highly visible professional athletes will attract youngsters to the sport. Track will never be as glamorous as basketball or football, but should at least be able to hold its own with skateboarding and snowboarding. Don't laugh; we could learn a thing or two about attracting kids from the "extreme" sports. And I don't think that is Olan Cassell is the man for that job.

It all makes for interesting speculation, in any event. Although monumental changes are unlikely to result from Cassell's ousting, the leaders of the sport will be forced into a period of introspection now, which is a good thing. Olan Cassell's legacy in the sport is destined to be mixed. He has been in a position of leadership in track and field for the better part of the late 20th century. That fact alone will accord him a measure of respect. Most will question that leadership and wonder if more could have been done, however. Good luck to whomever succeeds Cassell in that position. It ain't gonna be easy. As Shakespeare also said, " Uneasy is the head that wears the crown."

 

 

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