I received numerous responses to my last blog post — — about the current state of the sport, its governance, and the future of the fledgling athletes’ union, the Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA). One of the over-arching themes that emerged was the need for athletes to speak with one voice because so much of what they want for their future is still tied into the issue of governance. After all, goes the argument, it is the elected officials of the national governing body (NGB) that make and enforce the rules of competition, head up relevant sport committees, and appoint officials to make the on-site rulings. Individually, athletes simply don’t have the standing to help decide such issues, while collectively they would.
While that argument is absolutely true, it is only true as pertains USATF-sanctioned events and championships. Just as in tennis, golf, basketball, you name it, the job of developing a sport, of contesting its national championships, and then selecting its Olympic or World Championship teams, is not one and the same as staging and presenting a professional version of that sport for its own sake.
Tennis is governed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and its 210-member national tennis associations. They sanction the four Grand Slam events, and operate three major international team competitions, notably the Davis Cup. But it is the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tours that control most other high-level professional tournaments. This is the organizational hierarchy athletics and road racing don’t have, but are in need of.
In the public eye, as we’ve seen, there is no clear line between amateur and pro track and road running. People still wonder how you can take prize money and still compete in the Olympic Games. And the quote from George Perry of the Austin TC that attendees of the IEG Sponsorship Conference had “no idea there was such a thing as pro track in the US”, stands as an indictment to us all.
My point is that until we have a fully professional model that is readily distinguishable from the developmental aspect of track & field, we will continue to be unable to effectively explicate the sport to the public, or market it to its full advantage. But to create that distinction, we must, necessarily, move away from the single organizing umbrella model, while retaining and supporting the important and necessary functions required of the national governing bodies.
In tennis the ITF (the governing body) runs developmental professional tours for men and women with prize purses of $10,000 or $15,000. Medium-level men’s tournaments are run by the ATP (pros) through the ATP Challenger Tour. The ITF Women’s Circuit incorporates both developmental and mid-level tournaments. And the ITF (NGB) is also responsible for maintaining an international under-18 junior circuit for boys and girls. But virtually every ATP and WTA pro player starts by playing on the ITF circuits. So there is a clear connection between the developmental tours and the top pros, but there are also distinct rungs on the ladder to climb toward the top pro level.
It is these rungs that are missing in athletics and road racing. The IAAF and its 212-member NGBs cannot be expected to run the entire panoply of competitions from youth to developmental to pro, because, quite evidently, it isn’t publicly digestible that way. Plus, the mission, needs, costs and outreach of each are fundamentally different.
I fully agree that the burden now lies with the athletes. It is their responsibility to coordinate their own future. And that won’t be easy, because there are many athletes who are satisfied with the current model, though as Jack Wickens of USATF Foundation illustrated quite tellingly last year, How Much Money do Track and Field Athletes Actually Make?, we essentially have no middle class in our sport, only a very few haves and many, many have-nots.
As Kris Kristofferson so famously wrote in Me and Bobby McGee: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Unfortunately, our sport has had the uncanny ability to maintain just enough of something-left-to-lose to keep the athletes in line and dreaming, but not enough to support a growing enterprise. At some point freedom has a cost.
Also, I’ve experienced firsthand the difficult in trying to wrangle elements of our sport toward a more coherent future. Working as a member of a road racing task force in 1994, we put together a proposal to form an autonomous road racing division within USATF, funded by one-third the proceeds developed through road events that remained in the national office.
However, when then-USATF head Ollan Cassell, with whom we met several times to tweak the proposal, brought the plan before the USATF executive committee at the nationals in Knoxville that summer, it was voted down. And the irony is that the leader of the opposition was a member of the task force that produced the proposal that Ollan was championing! Turns out, she “didn’t want to give Ollan any more power” as he would have named the new head of the road division, and thereby, in their eyes, undercut the LDR committees. As always, it was a combination of turf protection and petty personal conflict that scuttled the effort. And this is what we have seen, ad infinitum, throughout the years.
So here we are once again with the same frustrations, the same well-meaning, well-intentioned aggregate of disparate players and turf protectors. However, as it was my belief in 1994, it is my belief today, that if approached properly, and respectfully, with an eye toward the betterment of the game for all – because look where the damn thing is! — there is no reason a more coherent, more defined, tennis-like configuration couldn’t come about in athletics and road running. We just have to acknowledge the holes that exist in our current organizational model — one-size doesn’t fit all — and accept the need to create the efficiencies and publicly recognizable rungs that we currently don’t have in place. The goal isn’t zero-sum, it is win-win.