Honolulu, Hi. — It is easy to get lolled into a complacent repose here on the magical isle of Oahu. The rolling surf and easy trade winds loosen even the stiffest resolve, and one can forget, for the moment, the sulfurous zeitgeist wafting over the sport of athletics of late.
From the doping positives and allegations of wide-spread cheating and corruption coming out of the distance Eden of Kenya, to the hardened realpolitik of alleged payoffs to cover failed drug tests in Russia — or to secure championship site selection by the IAAF — from the overturning of a mandate-level membership vote by a know-better USATF Board of Directors, to the potential loss of root and branch events like the 10,000, shot put, triple jump, and 200 meters on the track at the Olympics, there seems to be a sense of a house on fire on all fronts of athletics.
Maybe this is the entropy toward which any old and failed model eventuates. Maybe this is how the culture of greed and corruption loops back on itself in an ironic twist of Shakespearean delight. In any regard, it is clear that the sport has completely lost its way.
Those in charge seem less passionate about the game than about the easy rewards that come from positions within extra-national oligarchies that lack adequate oversight and deal in the murky world of international banking. It is why this sport is so attractive to so many of the wrong people as well as to so many great athletes and well-meaning supporters.
But there has always been the sense that the problem cannot be solved by simply rejiggering the NGB model or by replacing fallen men with more upstanding counterparts. Though every sport has its difficulties and foibles, other successful sports have long since separated the necessary duties of governance, grass roots development and national team selection from the very different requirements of a truly professional sport.
Since professionalism came into athletics (track and field) in the 1980s, the IAAF and its member federations have tried mightily to assimilate the new professionalism into their amateur-born operations. But despite their best efforts – if that’s what you want to call it — athletics has kept running around in circles because all it has ever had is that single NGB wing flapping wildly trying to steer a true course. But as has been pointed out by others, the USOC and its governing bodies were expressly prohibited from “engag[ing] in business for profit.” 36 USC 220507. They might want to do it, but they weren’t designed to do it, and it shows.
That is what professionals are for, those who have a very narrow mandate – making money for members — and the organizational agility to accomplish that mandate. But differentiating between the separate requirements of an NGB and a professional wing doesn’t mean turning away from the NGB, either. The pros, like in other sports, will need to work hand-in-glove with the NGBs for national championships and international team selections, thereby making each wing more efficient and the sport’s flight more true.
In all the controversy we see before us, the fact is the current NGB model has been asked to do too much for too many with too little, and now the alarms are sounding everywhere. The NGB model needs to be unburdened of a responsibility that was never intended to be theirs in the first place, and for which they have not been adequately designed.
In that case, maybe it is best that the house is on fire now. Maybe they should just let it burn, then rebuild once the smoldering embers have cooled.
Yet out here in Honolulu the mood is quite different. Here the pro sport and amateur activity of running have blended as easily as rum and pineapple juice, as the organizers of the Honolulu Marathon continue embrace all facets of the game with an Aloha spirit that forever marks these islands as something beyond simply one of 50 United States. Here the trade winds have kept the acrid smell of corruption and anger well off shore and beyond the distant horizon. Unfortunately, there is a flight back to the Mainland awaiting early next week, and who knows what new fires may be burning there?