Monday, February 9, 2009
Report outlines U.S. track's needs
They asked for a candid review of their problems and they got it -- 69 pages of unflattering details, uncomfortable advice and a laundry list of possible solutions for the U.S. track team.
A task force commissioned by USA Track and Field released its report Monday, lashing out at the American relay system, recommending streamlining Olympic trials and calling for a more stringent policy for dopers who want to be reinstated.
The report came in the wake of a disappointing showing at the Beijing Olympics. Americans led all countries with 23 track and field medals but their seven golds were the lowest total since the 1997 world championships.
The task force is called "Project 30," a nod to the goal of winning 30 medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
"We're headed toward having single digits in the next few Olympics if we don't make the changes," said Carl Lewis, one of the nine members of the task force.
The panel decried an overall "lack of accountability, professionalism and cohesion" among staff, coaches and athletes. The group suggested athletes focus more on winning Olympic medals, acting like professionals and possibly creating a union, and less on things such as appearance fees and access to TVs in the Olympic village.
To spearhead the changes, the task force called for the hiring of a general manager to oversee all aspects of USATF.
Chief executive Doug Logan said he would decide how to respond to the panel's 10 key recommendations by the time of the next USATF board meeting in March.
"This report has and will produce a significant amount of discomfort and the change that comes with it will produce a significant amount of discomfort," Logan said. "But it's the only way the institution can change and get better."
The task force covered the doping issue even though it wasn't asked to, saying it was the single most important issue in the sport.
It called for current anti-doping standards to be augmented by the USATF, saying cheaters should be reinstated only if they provide depositions under oath "detailing what went into their decision to cheat, how they obtained and used their drugs, and who contributed to their cheating."
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said it was pleased to see the task force take such a strong stance but noted that some of the recommendations now exist in the anti-doping program.
"Of course, we look forward to assisting the USATF Task Force in developing specific programs that they believe will address and improve their unique sport issues," USADA spokeswoman Erin Hannan said.
Officials at the U.S. Olympic Committee applauded the report.
"If the analysis was sharp, it's only because the committee recognizes what U.S. track and field athletes are capable of achieving," spokesman Darryl Seibel said.
The task force also suggested athletes take more control over their careers, a consistent theme throughout the report. The group concluded athletes don't focus enough on winning, or achieving personal bests, at the Olympics.
The 10-day Olympic trials, which includes two rest days, might be part of the problem.
The panel did not recommend any change in the awarding of spots to the top three finishers in each event -- a system that leaves the U.S. team vulnerable to injuries of top athletes, such as when Tyson Gay went down during 200-meter qualifying.
But the task force said a shorter schedule and fewer entrants was a good idea, because the meet taxes athletes emotionally, physically and financially and doesn't necessarily set them up for their best performance at the Olympics.
It acknowledged that truncating the event could hurt TV revenue, but Logan said it's a sacrifice that might have to be made.
"The objective should not be to create a televisable two weekends every four years at the expense of preparing the team for what is the ultimate goal," good performances at the Olympics, he said.
Athletes, too, must share this focus.
The task force said they should set out a yearlong plan and hold to it during an Olympic year, avoiding the temptation to cash in on success at Olympic trials by making money grabs at pre-Olympic events in Europe.
And it said athletes need to make more decisions for themselves -- regarding schedules, coaches and sponsor relations. The panel added that agents had accumulated too much power.
Short on sympathy, the task force said many athletes needed to be more independent and able to roll with the punches in an Olympic atmosphere, where transportation, food and coaches' access to the track are often inferior to what they're used to.
It told of an athlete who complained because she couldn't get a TV in her room and took the complaint to the USOC athlete ombudsman.
"The TV was not procured, as it is not a vital part of providing services to the team and was considered by staff to be an inappropriate request and expectation," the report stated.
The most severe criticism was leveled at the American relay effort. The men's and women's 400-meter teams each dropped the baton in qualifying -- a debacle that punctuated the entire team's underachievement.
The panel called for the American Relay Program -- which spent more than $1 million and trained 173 athletes from 2003-08 -- to be disbanded immediately.
"It's not earth shattering how to do this," said panelist Mel Rosen, head coach of the 1992 men, who won both relays. "It's a simple procedure if you can get six kids who want to work. And you've got to tell numbers 5 and 6 they may not run but need to be ready."
The panel described a general atmosphere in Beijing of confusion, politicking and anxiety that ultimately led to bad exchanges between Darvis Patton and Gay in the men's race and Torri Edwards and Lauryn Williams in the women's.
Shortly before the women's relay, the runners were in the holding room and about to head to the starting line with no idea where their bibs were. Their numbers had to be handwritten at the last second.
"One athlete was ... nearly crying when she spoke of how embarrassing it was to them," the report read. "That the bib debacle transpired just moments before taking the track did not help the team's fortunes, as it was clearly a very significant distraction and cause of negativity."