E Pluribus Track

Each year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, the varied tribes that make up the sport of running in this country convene for the yearly rite known as the USA Track & Field Annual Meeting, most recently in USATF’s home city of Indianapolis.
ImageIn some ways, these gatherings resemble, at least from an athletic standpoint, the Mos Eisley cantina from the first Star Wars movie, with “creatures” from every corner of the track and field universe – race walkers, trail and ultra runners, officials, track and field athletes, course measurement geeks (that would be me) – all coming together to ostensibly improve the state of the sport and decide on its governance and direction for the future. Attend one or two of these, and you might come away amazed not that track and field’s governing functions so poorly, but that it functions at all.
There may not be another sport’s National Governing Body that brings as many disparate elements under one umbrella. It would be as if the U.S. Tennis Association governed not just lawn tennis, but squash, racquetball, badminton, and any other game involving hitting an object back and forth with some sort of raquet. In fact, track and field might be an even more fractured sport, once one gets past the extremely broad common denomitator of activities involving moving from one point to another as quickly as possible via bipedal propulsion (where field events fit in that definition is subject for another debate). Sometimes, when all the various segments come together in the occasional joint sessions that are part of the Annual Meeting, it seems like they might as well be speaking in different tongues for all the common ground that exists between them.
The High Performance group, which represents the thoroughbreds of the sport, the athletes and coaches who compete in national and international championships, exists and functions in quite a different mileu than the Long Distance Running committee, which represents the millions of weekend warriors who take to the roads in events from the local Mom & Pop 5K up to the Boston or New York marathons. Youth Athletics and Masters Athletics, the chronological yin and yang of the age group aspect of the sport, see themselves as separate from the open Track and Field segment. Youth sees itself as the feeder system to the open “big leagues,” while Masters provides an avenue for those no longer swift or strong enough to compete on the open level to continue their involvement in the sport almost into their dotage. Officials oversee competition on the track for all three groups, while the Associations people are the aparatchiks who grease the wheels of the sport on the state or regional level.
With so many groups, each with their own interest in the forefront, involved, a semi-dysfunctional functionality is perhaps the best that one could hope for in the sport; given that, USATF’s achievements should perhaps be met with almost unmitigated praise rather than criticism. And indeed, keeping such a Balkanized sport together is a task requiring the leadership of an athletic Marshal Tito, a role currently admirably fulfilled by CEO Max Siegel, who has managed to get all parties, if not to row together in unison, at least to point their boats in the same general direction.
Perhaps that’s the best that can be hoped for, and while that may not be the limiting factor in the ultimate growth and success of the sport, it is certainly a major one. In the meantime, let’s applaud where American running is now, and hope for even better days ahead.
A recent article postulate that track and field might be the most democratic of sports. If part of that definition is its success in bringing members of disparate goals and outlooks more or less together, then so be it. After a trip or two to a USATF Annual Meeting, one can’t help but agree that track and field is a sport that creates one out of many.

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