Below you will find a paper I wrote in 1989, with the help of Greg Lautenslager, in order to provoke some thought and discussion within Nike where the sport of track and field was headed. It is now 1997, and we still face all the problems set forward in my paper and more.
This past December Ollan Cassell, the occasionally controversial Executive Director, who is also vice president of the IAAF, was voted out of his position within USA Track and Field. As usual, we have been led to believe that our sport will now be saved.
I do not question the need for new leadership within the sport of track and field, but the firing of one man will not solve our problems. IN addition, to those I touched on above, personal interests are taking precedence over collective interests. Every champion has an agent who looks after his client's competition program, a financial investment which can bring a big return to both parties.
The flight of the best athletes towards Europe, where the money and competitive conditions offered to the stars are more generous than in the USA, adds to the brevity of the university career, while at the same time it lengthens the stay in college of those who, like true professionals, obtain the status of stars.
There is also a major drop in audiences. The best American athletes are not well known and much less popular than the football and basketball players. It seems, also, that the almost total disappearance of amateurism may have alienated the interest that the public once had in track and field. Thus Carl Lewis has never had the popularity that Jesse Owens enjoyed before the war without T.V. and despite a very short active career.
Drugs, often mentioned in connection with track & field, also throws a shadow over the sport, although it does make more effort to prevent the problem than the big professional sports - which tend to minimize the importance of this problem - while the public does not take the newspaper revelations seriously.
Moreover, besides football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball, other sports have changed the shape of sports competition in the USA. Tennis, golf, stock car racing and beach volleyball benefit from marketing and sponsorship that is much more powerful than that of track and field.
We must realize that our problems are many, and Ollan Cassell losing his job will not solve the serious issues ahead of us. USA Track and Field has never been the answer. Our governing body has always treated major wounds with band-aids. But, USA Track & Field is all we have, so hopefully with the proper leadership at the top, collectively we can save our sport, which is worth saving.
Cool Running has given me the opportunity to share some of my observations and opinions with you in the upcoming months. As I am intimidated by computer technology, please bear with me! I hope I have stimulated some thought and I look forward to having the opportunity to share some coaching ideas with you as well as looking at many of the problems which face our sport in the near future.
Into the last five laps of the Olympic 10,000 meter final, Bruce Bickford in his red, white, and blues flashed onto the television screen and led Morocco's Brahim Boutayeb down the straightaway. An American viewer who had just turned on his television set would have braced himself for an exciting finish. However, an American viewer who had been there from the gun would have shaken his head and wondered what was wrong with America's distance runners. When Boutayeb cruised by Bickford on his way to the gold medal, he was not simply passing the American to take the lead. Boutayeb was actually lapping him. And Bickford, the world'' 1985 top ranked 10,000 meter runner, was the best and only American in the final.
While the African runners were practically sweeping the medals from 800 meters on up at Seoul, the American runners were being shut out. And in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events since the 1964 Olympic Games, the Americans are barely showing up. No American has medaled since then and the best performance in Seoul came from South African-born-and-reared Sydney Maree, who finished fifth in the 5,000 meters.
And it gets worse. In 1988, only three American runners in each the 5,000 and the 10,000 were ranked in the top 50 in the world. Just three years before, in 1985, 12 Americans in each the 5,000 and 10,000 were ranked in the top 10 in the world that year. In 1986 and 1987, the top 50 number dwindled and only Maree in the 5,000 and Marc Nenow in the 10,000 were ranked in the world's top 10.
Then, the prognosis for the future gets even worse than that. With only a total of six in the top 50 in 1988 and with no world class performances being registered yet in 1989, the U.S. presently does not have enough depth to make a serious impact on the world scene.
The failure of American track distance runners in recent years is more than a mere coincidence, more than a simple lull in the sport's history. The U.S. has dropped to a state of mere mediocrity in events dominated by countries no bigger than our largest state. Great Britain, for example, had nine runners in the 5,000 ranked in the 1988 world top 50 and had five in the 10,000.
Our lack of success encompasses a wide range of areas, a spectrum of governing bodies, corporations, and individuals who have prevented American distance runners from developing into world class athletes.
As collegiate track coach and a coach of post-collegiate athletes the past 20 years, I have observed this problem first hand. In this report I will supply background to the current failure of American distance running, examine the problems of governing bodies and corporations, and provide solutions to the current problem.
In 1977, following lackluster performances by American track distance runners at the Montreal Olympics, Nike, Inc. devoted a major share of its promotional budget to the U.S. distance program by starting the Athletics West Track Club. From that time until 1982 the club grew from a tightly-knit group of 15 distance runners training in Eugene, Oregon to 78 athletes scattered across the country.
More than half of that total still trained in Eugene, where the club was run out of a 4,000-foot training facility which was complete with offices, film and meeting rooms, a weight room, a training room, a laboratory, a sauna, showers, and lockers. AW was staffed by an administrator, a full-time coach, a physiologist, a psychologist, a massage technician, an accountant, and several administrative assistants.
Besides the staff and facilities, Nike supported the athletes with travel to and from national and international competitions, medical and dental insurance, physiological testing, coaching, equipment, moving expenses, help in job placement, and tuition costs. For each athlete, who was also given a stipend of at least $6,000 per year, Nike spent an average of $16,000 to $18,000 annually. Athletics West, it was hoped, would put the U.S. back into the world distance running picture. The support from Nike had given American runners a big boost. "Athletics West is the first track club in this country to realistically answer the needs of the post-collegiate athlete," said then AW administrator Dick Brown in a 1982 article in Nautilus Magazine. "It is impossible for an athlete to compete at a world class level and work an eight-hour shift. Athletics West gives the athlete the needed training time for him to develop into a world class competitor".
The best example of that world class athlete was Olympic steepler Doug Brown, who moved his family from Knoxville to Eugene in 1978 to continue his career. "Back in Knoxville, I was burning the candle at both ends." Said Brown in that same Nautilus article. "My wife and I were expecting our first baby, I was teaching school and coaching my own team, and there just wasn't enough time to train. I was running around the block at 10:00 PM trying to get my interval workouts in and then scrounging around to get money to go to meets. I was pounding my head against the wall, and I was fed up with it. It was only a matter of time before the candle burned out."
With the help of Athletics West, Brown found a job that allowed him to train and responded in 1980 by making his third Olympic team.
And led by Alberto Salazar's American records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in 1982, Athletics West was spearheading the charge in moving the U.S. out of its mediocrity on the world track circuit. Dick Brown said the original idea for starting Athletics West was to get other corporations to follow suit and support American track and field. Other shoe companies - Adidas, Puma, Reebok, Brooks, Asics/Tiger, New Balance, and others - did come through to support their athletes, and at the 1984 Olympic Trials more than half of the post-collegiate athletes in the 1,500 on up (check this stat in T & F 1984 issues) had a stipend that allowed them to train full time.
The U.S. had made its start in regaining its stature on the world level. However, things changed. In 1986 Nike closed down the Athletics West training facility, laid off the SW staff members, and ran Athletics West out of its corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Nike reduced its roster to 45 athletes and no longer comprised the AW club of mostly distance runners. Today, only 18 of the club's 39 members are track distance runners.
Also, during this time the other shoe companies severely reduced their rosters and some even closed down their track promotional programs entirely. At the 1988 U.S. trials less than 30 percent of the runners from 1,500 on up received any kind of running subsidy during the Olympic year. After the Seoul Olympics the shoe companies pulled even more money out of their promotional program. Nike, for example, began putting more money into advertising and promoting their cross training programs.
The U.S. is quickly digressing to the pre-Athletics West days, when American post-collegiate distance runners were forced to work full-time jobs and had little time and energy left to train. Runners are scattered across the country on a variety of different programs under individual coaches. There is little travel money to go to meets, and the meets have trouble filling out their fields. This year at the Jesse Owens Classic, for instance, there were only six competitors in the 5,000 meters. And three of those were collegians. Because of the lack of support, many potential world class distance runners out of the college ranks are shying away from the sport in favor of their own professional careers, and many post-collegiate athletes are finding it impossible to reach their potential on their own. Before long the candle will burn out.
What many of these athletes have resorted to in order to stay in the sport is road racing. The "race of the week" athlete can pick up a grand or so, but that does not help him improve on the track. Large prize purses have lured athletes to devote much of their seasonal efforts to the roads, instead on to the track.
Athletes could use road races in the winter to build their incomes and to get ready for the spring and summer track meets. However, most of the lucrative local and national road races are held in the spring and summer. And the few winter races have been dominated by the huge influx of foreign distance runners. At the Nike-sponsored Gasparilla road race last February, for example, only two Americans cracked the rop ten in the 15 kilometer race. The tenth and final prize money winner, a Mexican runner, ran 43:45.
In order to make money in the winter, the American distance runners must be in top form then, and it is almost impossible to hold that form through track season. And competing in both roads and track during the spring and summer has also proved futile for the prospective world class track runner.
Many shoe companies have intensified the problem by creating local road race teams and advising their athletes to compete in road races to create maximum exposure for their company. Shoe companies are in turn favoring road races to track runners. For instance, almost every American distance runner on contract for New Balance is primarily a road racer. Nike has also encouraged its runners to compete in roads. Nike Mother's Day race is an example. And then Nike took potential prize money away from its own athletes by not allowing them to participate in the Ekiden Relay the past two years. The reason given by Nike management was because Asics, the race sponsor, suited up state team members in Asics apparel. Asics, Nike, and the TAC failed to reach a compromise, and for two straight years Nike has sent letters informing its athletes that participation in the Ekiden Relay would result in immediate termination from Nike. For one potential Massachusetts team member the Nike boycott probably has cost him about $7,000 in the past two years. And he is a track distance runner.
Such contract clauses have hurt athletes. Joan Samuelson, for example, had her preparations for her big comeback attempt at the Boston Marathon this year hindered because she was flying around doing promotional work for Nike instead of concentrating on her training.
Despite its damaging effects on its own athletes, Nike is also the only corporation that has put some - even it is little - financial support directly into track and field. Nike has supplemented Athletics West with a feeder system of regional track clubs. The biggest of these clubs is Nike Boston. Nike Boston was given a budget of $15,000 and has sent its athletes to national cross country, indoor, and outdoor meets and other major competitions. Nike Boston has won the Men's TAC Cross Country team championship the past two years.
Presently I coach 20 of the 27 distance runners in the club. A series of weekly MetroWest All-Comers meets at the Northeastern University track in May and June the past two years has given athletes a place to run personal best performances at the height of track season. In 1988, 28 men and women athletes qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 at these meets. Depthwise, the best men's 5,000 in the U.S. has been at the MetroWest, as 16 runners in 1988 and 14 in 1989 have cracked the 14 minute barrier in one particular race.
Still, these Nike Boston runners are not given stipends and most of them work full time to make a living. Only world-ranked performances would elevate them to the AW contract level. And they are forced into a "Catch 22" situation - they have to run world class times to gain financial assistance, but they need financial assistance to run world class time.
Even though the shoe companies have pulled their support out of the track and field market, they really aren't the culprit in the failure of American track distance runners. It is the moral responsibility of the NCAA and the TAC to improve the current situation. Their past and recent efforts have not helped American track distance runners. Men's college distance programs have been very much hurt by two severe cutbacks during the past 15 years by the NCAA. In 1974, the NCAA limited track programs to 14 full scholarships. That does not even make one scholarship for each of the 21 events.
Then in 1977 the addition of Title IX reduced those scholarships even more by forcing the even distribution of funds for the men's and women's programs. Although it helped the women's programs substantially, it severely injured the men's programs. The Title IX approval forced many schools to have one coach for both programs, which created a poor coach-athlete ratio and resulted in much less individual attention. It forced coaches to cater to sprinters, who are capable of competing in more events and thus scoring more points. And it forced distance runners, already drained from cross country and indoor track seasons, to run two or more races at outdoor track meets. By the time many of these distance runners finish their four years, they are burned out and have no desire to continue their running careers.
Those track distance runners who have survived the collegiate ranks have been stung again by the TAC. Even though the TAC budget grew substantially when they were given part of the surplus from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the programs the TAC has set up have primarily helped those who do not need help. In Operation Seoul, for example almost $500,000 was awarded to athletes training for the Seoul Games. A sum of $2,000 per month from January 1 through July 31, 1988 - and through September for those who made the Olympic team - was paid to selected athletes. This sudden revenue increase did not further most of those selected athletes' chances to medal, because most of those selected athletes (i.e. Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Mary Slaney) already had annual six-figure incomes to begin with. Developing athletes with four-figure incomes could have benefited more from the five-figure increase by having more time to train.
The Road to Excellence program, funded by the Men's Long Distance Running Committee of the TAC, awarded grants of $3,000 to $5,000 for the period of January through October to 10 distance runners whose annual incomes were below $25,000. Still five of those 10 grants went to mostly road runners. Furthermore, all members of the LDR committee are involved with a major road race and committee chairman Don Kardong is the only member with any track and field background.
The TAC Sport Aid program awarded $200 per month to two athletes in every men's event and three athletes in every women's event. The awards were based solely on how the athletes performed at the Olympic Trials with no regard to performances achieved throughout the year. After this year, the TAC Outdoor meet will be the sole criteria for these funds. Therefore, an athlete who does not run or run well at nationals, but has a great European season and ranks in the top 10 in the world, will not be considered for this grant.
TAC's biggest flop has been the America's Plan, the television contract the TAC signed with the Turner Broadcasting Company. The Plan was to create renewed interest in the sport with live one hour coverage at many indoor and outdoor meets. However, the Plan has failed. It has been simply a showcase of American sprinters. In the first five outdoor meets telecast by TBS not one distance race was shown, with the exception of the men's 3,000 meter run at the Prefontaine Classic. And at Pre, the 3,000 meter steeplechase and the 5,000 meters - for years the premier event dedicated to the late Steve Prefontaine, the former multi-American record setter whose fourth-place in the 5,000 at the 1972 Olympics is the best American finish since 1964 - were dropped from the meet to accommodate the television schedule.
Other televised broadcasts have been even more harmful to the distance runners. At the Olympic Trials, the finals of the women's 3,000 meters was run at mid-afternoon in near 100 degree temperatures in Indianapolis to accommodate ABC-TV's coverage. Heat exhaustion caused at least three athletes to be carted off to the emergency medical tent. The men's 5,000 final was also run in the afternoon to accommodate television. Race times and sites seem to be scheduled for everyone but the distance runners. The heat in Indianapolis prevented any 10,000 runner from breaking 29:00 (Olympic qualifying was 28:20). And the Outdoor TAC site for 1989 was Houston.
To further hurt the distance runners chances for the Olympics, unnecessary heats were added in the 5,000 and 10,000. Standards were raised to insure heats. In the 5,000 the first round still went off, even though only two runners were eliminated from the original 26. An athlete who doubled had to run five races, 21,7 miles, and 87 ½ laps in nine days. Such a load would make it almost impossible to recover properly in time for the Olympic Games. There are so many factors that have led to the slow demise of America's track distance runners. But for all these factors, there are just as many solutions. And to solve this problem it will take a conscious effort by all those involved.
Shoe companies, for instance, must take a moral step by putting money back into the sport which gave them their beginning. Nike should use the original Athletics West as a model to develop regional clubs like Nike Boston around the country. Revenue easily could be raised by taking some support out of the many major road races the company sponsors and by taking a fraction out of the advertising budget. One 30-second television commercial could fund 10 athletes for an entire year.
Nike, for one, needs to think more about what they can do for their athletes, instead of what their athletes can do for them. Requiring athletes to run particular races, not allowing them to run others, and including burdening promotional clauses into contracts prevents athletes from sticking to their straight path to success. How can you expect loyalty from your athletes if you are not loyal to them?
Such corporate support would add incentive for the developing collegiate runners, especially if these athletes can be prevented from over-racing. NCAA officials must set guidelines for coaches and make rules to prohibit distance runners from running more than so many laps in each meet. Such rules would eliminate the conflict of interest for the coach interested solely in team totals.
Post-collegiate runners' bug problem is they "under" race - on the track. The TAC should encourage distance runners to train for the track by awarding grants to runners who run the track and allowing those who choose to run strictly roads to make their fortunes their. The TAC should staff their committees with knowledgeable track runners, instead of road race managers.
Like the shoe companies, the TAC must think more of those "in" the sport than those "around" the sport. Site selection for championship meets should be in cool climates, where distance runners can run fast times and not be threatened with possible heat exhaustion. In instances, just running the distance events past 9:00 p.m., when the temperature and the wind drop substantially, can improve performances 20 to 30 seconds.
Finally, television coverage should include at least one distance race per meet to create more media interest. In Europe most countries' televise at least one meet per week, and telecasts do without time-consuming interviews and commentary, and include every race - or at least portions of every race - in a one hour show. In Great Britain even high school meets are televised. Such televised distance events on American soil would be welcomed by those viewers who are interested in the success of American distance runners.
However, until solutions are met in the present American system that would put the U.S. distance runners on the path out of mediocrity, the only time that an American distance runner will cross the viewer's television screen is when that American distance runner is being lapped. Back to Bob's Homepage