I’ve never met you, but I have always been a fan. The excitement generated by your come-from-behind racing has lifted more than one arena to its collective feet, none more so than at the 2008 Olympic Trials 800-meter final in Eugene, Oregon. Just this week, however, you entered another arena, politics, by creating a Facebook page called I’m tired of USATF and IAAF crippling our sport. And as I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough, this may be an even harder track to succeed on than the Mondo version you’ve zoomed to four national 800-meter titles atop.
You know you’ve struck a nerve when, in just two days, your Symmond’s summons has attracted nearly 5000 on-line friends as you outlined your main bone of contention: “Could someone please explain to me why NASCAR drivers can have literally DOZENS of ads on their competition uniforms, cars, etc and track and field athletes are FORBIDDEN to have ANY corporate logo on their warm-ups or competition uniforms? Track and field athletes are not even allowed to put corporate logos on the arms as temporary tattoos. These asinine rules have been created by our governing bodies USATF and IAAF and are crippling our sport by preventing the flow of dollars into it.”
Nick, there are literally thousands who share your frustration and concern. And there have been many attempts over the years to lift track and running into the public consciousness. All have failed. One reason, one you seemed to have overlooked, is that what you refer to as “these asinine rules created by our governing bodies” aren’t crippling THEIR sport, only yours. And that’s the point.
You are under the misapprehension that the IAAF governance is about the athletes. It’s not. Never has been. It’s about them. Always has been. And that’s not meant as an indictment of the people involved, many of whom are well-meaning and hard-working. It’s just the nature of bureaucracies. Didn’t you see Chariots of Fire? Tell me, what, substantially, has changed over the decades, except by matters of degree?
Sure, track and running are now “professional”, but why do you think so many top marathoners turned down the chance to represent their country at the World Championships in Daegu this August? Because the money in Daegu wasn’t on par with what the market is offering in Berlin, Chicago, and New York City. But there’s the nub of your problem. At least the road racers have an alternative. You don’t. And the way the powers have structured the whole apparatus - with every athlete an independent contractor clawing for Olympic selection – you need the IAAF and USATF more than they need you. And they know it! You’re just an individual. They own the game. They can fill your lane in an instant.
As presently constituted, with running controlled at the international level by remnants of a Victorian-era paternalism and class structure determined to protect positions of power and lifestyles that, at times, would make Donald Trump blanch, there exists not one scintilla of overview by a professional body representing the athlete’s interests mandated to protect, enlarge and package the sport’s assets within the marketplace. It’s a rigged game, not unlike what Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs calls “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” regarding the erosion of the American middle class.
When questioned in 1993 about the disparity of dollars awarded athletes under his jurisdiction vis-a-vis other sports, the late IAAF president Primo Nebiolo was unequivocal.
“Our goal is not to share with some great athletes the income that comes from our hard work and our efforts. Our goal is to use this income to reinforce our federations and develop athletes all over the world.”
Their hard work, mind you, their efforts. Yet by assuming this anti-star posture, Nebiolo not only contradicted the market acknowledgement that the star-system is what generates public and economic interest – be it in Hollywood or the NBA – but he hamstringed his own efforts to do that which he claims was his goal. The more you elevate your heroes the greater your own opportunity to expand grass roots programs as well. Stars pay a dividend. But developing athletes, you’ll notice, was only the second of his goals. “Reinforcing our federations” was number one.
As a further consequence of this federation-versus-athlete atmosphere, the IAAF continues to unwittingly foster the preponderance of running’s media via drug allegations and court battles as athletes revert to any means necessary to get their piece of the restricted pie. The athletes, in fact, do not have an advocate within the sport’s current bureaucracy, but instead are confronted with a competitor in whom they place no trust.
FROM ROZELLE TO RONO
While the world recovered from the devastation of World War II, and the nations of Africa were breaking the colonial bonds that had tied them to European powers since the Conference of Berlin in 1885, the First and Second World athletes dominated world competitions, much of it as a sublimation of Cold War antagonisms. Throughout this time, African nations weren’t involved in organized world sport whatsoever – with the notable exception of Ethiopia in the person of Abebe Bikila, 1960 and `64 Olympic marathon champion.
The First and Second Worlds competed within a closed loop, much like American football and baseball do to this day (and American manufacturing did until the 1970s). And organic heroes developed naturally from within this system. Besides, sport in general wasn’t treated as a business by any sport.
However, since the end of colonial rule in Africa in the early 1960′s, even as the athletes from the newly independent nations began to emerge onto the world stage hungry for spoils, back in America a young advertising man, Pete Rozelle, was hired in 1960 to be commissioner of the National Football League. The following year Rozelle designed federal legislation that permitted the sale of television broadcast rights to a single network for the entire league’s schedule rather than to numerous local broadcast outlets as individual games.
In the ensuing years these two forces, the spread of the track into all corners of the globe, and the application of business and marketing practices by American sports, conspired to separate track and running from the mainstream of American sporting life. In 1988 at the Seoul Olympics, the emerging nations’ athletes, especially those from Kenya, came fully into their own, even as the Ben Johnson steroid scandal detonated public opinion in the face of track and field (and by extension all of running).
While the athletes continued to improve the standards of excellence set by previous generations, the natural star-building system of the pre-1968 Mexico City Olympics faltered as the Cold War ended, and track was no longer used as a rallying cry by political enemies. And with no institutional support available from the homelands of these new champions to salute and promote their accomplishments, the need to forward this cause should have reverted, as a matter of course, to the sport’s umbrella organization, the IAAF.
But rather than stepping forward to buoy the international promotion of excellence and increasing prize purses to match other sports while the acceptance curve caught up worldwide, track officials focused, instead, on cheap talent and began touting fast times as the main attraction rather than the athletes, who they considered easily replaceable commodities. As a consequence, these opposing shifts in athletic and marketing trends resulted in a devastating void in the public recognition of track and running (except for drug use).
With no one’s job in jeopardy by the current invisible, if not negative, public image of track and field and road running, with individual governing federations acting as semi-autonomous rogue states tying athletes to a form of athletic serfdom, and events locked in internecine battles throughout the globe out of sight of media attention, the anticipated consequences are evidenced in the humbled state of this sport.
Nick, it comes down to this: as long as the Olympic Games and World Championships remain the accepted pinnacle of athletic achievement – franchises owned and controlled by the IOC, IAAF, and their member Olympic committees and federations – individual athletes, whose short half-lives in the competitive arena and representation by a host of IAAF-sanctioned agents, will remain powerless to counteract this 19th century dynamic.
Consider the following: It took the top tennis professionals of their era – men like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, and Pancho Gonzales - six years (1963 to 1968) of boycotting the four tennis majors, while barnstorming on their own, before they broke the system and ushered in the open era. And remember, Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 his last year in, and again in 1969 his first year back, meaning he gave up 24 opportunities to play in the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in those six years. All for a cause he believed in. So, Nick, are today’s track athletes willing to make that kind of personal sacrifice? Show me an alternative, and I’ll write the press release.
“POWER NEVER TAKES A BACK STEP – ONLY IN THE FACE OF MORE POWER.” Malcolm X
A fan in the press box