At this month’s Oscars, the extravagant goody bags that were once bestowed on the Red-Carpet brigade – containing schwag like jewelry, spa treatments, luxury trips, and the latest tech gear – were replaced by what were called “gifting suites”. These scented, tented lounges were invitation-only opportunities for the Hollywood A-listers to graze at their leisure out of sight of the prying eyes of the media, public, and IRS.
Well, USATF has its own version of the rich get richer giveaway. The April issue of Track & Field News explained in detail the three-level tier system from which the USATF distributes its financial aid, medical support, health insurance, competition grants, and other benefits to American track and field athletes.
Without getting too deep into the weeds of tier criteria – other than to say Olympic or World Championships medals and top 10 world rankings define selection – of the 47 tier 1 men only Bernard Lagat, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Chris Solinsky come from the ranks of distance runners. For the women only Shalane Flanagan qualifies as tier 1. Tier 2 distance men are Galen Rupp and Matt Tegenkamp. There are no tier 2 women or tier 3 men or women distance runners. In other words, out of 153 athletes eligible for USATF support, only six are distance runners. And of course, all those named above have substantial shoe company contracts and benefits already in place.
What we see, then, is a system turned on its head. The very athletes who most need support, those just emerging from collegiate programs, athletes who form the wide base from which the pinnacle of the pyramid rises, are the very ones kept begging. It’s the old-fashioned credit box; prove that you don’t need it in order to get it.
There are, however, several distance running support mechanisms currently in operation. The USATF High Performance Training Grants program allocates $100,000 per year to five pro-athlete training groups. This year the distance oriented Mammoth Track Club in California received $16,666. Running USA awarded Greg McMillan’s Team USA Arizona $25,000 at this year’s RUSA Conference in San Antonio, Texas – one-fourth what it used to contribute annually to Team USA California in Mammoth in the early 2000s. And since 1996 the Road Runners Club of America has awarded over $330,000 in grants through its Roads Scholar program to assist American post-collegiate road runners, granting $5,000 to four and six athletes annually.
However, of the 44 donors to the Roads Scholar program listed by RRCA, only Cherry Blossom, Inc. out of Washington D.C. contributes as much as $10,000. The Atlanta Track Club, presenters of the massive Peachtree Road Race, are alone at the $5000 level, while nine other contributors give $1000 or above. By far the largest contributor to USA distance running in recent years has been the New York Road Runners.
“We have never wavered in our support,” said NYRR Director of Media Relations Richard Finn. “But equally important as the dollars raised, what we’ve been able to do – and it’s been a consistent bedrock of our philosophy – is actively encourage and support American runners to come to our events to compete against the best in the world, rather than be pushed back into the minor leagues.”
“We’ve certainly been in a position to contribute due to the value of the ING New York City Marathon,” added NYRR elite athlete manager Sam Grotewold. “But other events like the Twin Cities Marathon and Houston Marathon have kicked into the USA Distance Project run by the USATF Foundation under Jack Wickens.”
NYRR created what they call the “Champions Circle”, modeled on Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation or the American Cancer Society.
“Every penny goes to post-collegiate training groups,” explained Grotewold. “In 2011 the number was $205,000. And if you add up all the appearance money, travel, U.S.-only prize money, the figure since 2006 is between $4-5 million.
“We’ve proven Americans can win Olympic and World medals, and look at the American successes this past weekend at our half-marathon, the World Cross Country Championships, and the L.A. Marathon. And with kids like Robby Andrews, Jordan Hasay, and Lukas Verzbicas on the horizon, there’s no reason that won’t continue with proper support.”
This is the landscape, then, of a sport that, except for a few independent free thinkers, has steadfastly refused to embrace its homegrown distance runners seriously. Road runners are like the poor cousins who were given shelter by USATF at its inception when the AAU was disbanded, and individual sport governing bodies were constituted by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. Back then road running was in its infancy, and was forced on The Athletics Congress (precursor of USATF).
It might, in fact, be unfair to lay any blame at the doorstep of USATF. Their primary task is to win Olympic and World Championship medals. Except for the IAAF Road Running Championships and the World Champs and Olympic Marathons, there are no road racing medals available.
Thus, there is again a nascent move afoot for the sport of road racing itself to take control of its own development – as it once was under Running USA in the first decade of the 2000s. As we reported before races like the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon and the Battle of the Potomac Cross Country Meet have committed $1.00 per entry for the support of U.S. distance running camps.
It is this ground level of support that, over time and commitment, will build tier 1 champion athletes. But that self-taxing mechanism has been tried before, and not found wide spread support.
“During my first year with NYRR in 1999-2000 there was a meeting in the Sheraton Hotel,” recalled Richard Finn. “Somebody suggested the same thing to a room full of RUSA people. With $1.00 per entry we could really build something substantial. But when they asked for support, maybe Mary (Wittenberg, president of NYRR), and one other person raised their hands. So it’s not as cut and dried as you’d think.”
Yet Steve Nearman, director of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half, who is leading the effort to gain adherents to this self-taxing method, said it well.
“If the races themselves won’t support the development of American distance running, who will?”
As a practical matter, the current system is funding and supporting dozens of training camps in far-flung areas of the world that are developing athletes to beat Americans in American road races. Why wouldn’t it make sense to earmark a portion of either the prize money currently on offer or the addition of $1.00 to every entry, as a means to support developmental camps in America?
“If the countries the size of Kenya (40 million) and Ethiopia (83 million) can create the number of top athletes they do, with the country the size of the U.S. (308 million) we should have a number of 2:07-2:08 (marathon) guys,” says Mammoth Track Club coach Bob Larsen. “And a super kid or two will go down to 2:05 –2:06. And then we’d be in the ball game. The press would pay attention if we were just in the game.”
It is not to be expected that commercial operations like shoe companies do more than fulfill their obligation to their shareholders. That’s why it is up to the events themselves, the component parts of the sport of road racing, to contribute across their wide base of mass participants at the lowest common denominator possible – $1.00 per entry. With that mechanism for developing American excellence in place we can once again showcase to our children the examples they should aspire to.
“The African times don’t scare me,” continues Larsen. “We have near 4:00 high school milers who should be able to run 4:15 10K pace. But we aren’t developing them. When programs get better – you need to develop coaches, too – we’ll have the 26:30 10,000-meter guys. And maybe one or two of them when they get to the marathon will run 2:05. You have to remember these athletes are putting their other potential careers on hold as their peers move ahead on the career track. But somehow people have the expectation that they run for free, when in fact it’s a demanding job which requires lots of support.”