The ink, or whatever the electronic equivalent is these days, was barely dry on last week’s announcement that Los Angeles had been awarded the2016 men’s and women’s Olympic Trials marathon when the recriminations and second- and third-guessing began.
Athletes, who had a stake in it, and fans and journalists, who had little or none, immediately questioned the decision of USATF CEO Max Siegel to select L.A. over Houston, which had been the choice of the members of the Long Distance Running committees at the USATF Annual Meeting in Indianapolis back in December.
That Siegel seemingly disregarded, or at least went against, those wishes might have been controversial, but was completely within the bylaws of the organization, which gave him the final say-so on awarding the Oylympic Trials. And indeed, it wasn’t totally surprising, given that the announcement didn’t come in Indy, but almost two months later. The prevailing feeling, ultimately proven correct, was that the longer the delay, the greater the chance that Houston was going to come out on the short end.
What was more questionable, however, was the fact that L.A. was allowed to modify its bid to make it more competitive with Houston. One of the main objections by the LDR folks was that L.A.’s mid-March date wouldn’t give athletes who didn’t make the team in the marathon sufficient time to bounce back to take a second shot at the track and field Trials in June, as Dathan Ritzenhein and Amy Hastings did in 2012. After some back and forth with USATF, L.A. agreed to move its date up to early February, putting itself on a more even footing temporally with Houston, an expos facto move that some considered unfair in what was generally assumed to be a final bid submission process. That, however, was never the case, as both parties were given the opportunity to modify their bids, and indeed Houston reportedly sweetened its prize pot during the process.
A second, and perhaps stickier, point came out this week when it was noted that the L.A. prize purse was $100,000 less than Houston’s, causing Men’s LDR chair Ed Torres to issue a statement calling on the L.A. organizers to match the Houston dollar figure and not take money out of American marathoners’ pockets.
One must realize that runners are creatures of habit, resistant to any sort of change. Kevin Hanson once stated as proof of this dictum that not only do the vast majority of them run the same training route day after day, but do so in the same direction! So it’s not surprising that even America’s elite distance runners, comfortable with the way Houston handled the 2012 Trials as well as the USA half marathon championships for many years before that, would want to see the status quo maintained, eliminating just one more variable from their training and racing.
But sometimes, change is not only good, but necessary. When New York and Boston won the bid to host the marathon Trials for the 2008 team, people wondered if the events would be lost among the attention paid to the much larger open races held the following day. It turned out to be a master stroke, and set the bar so high that to top it, Houston had to hold both the men’s and women’s races simultaneously the next time, another idea that was initially questioned but ultimately proven successful.
No doubt L.A. realizes this is its golden opportunity to establish itself in the elite pantheon of American marathons such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, something which has eluded the race throughout its history. Through repeated changes of dates, courses and leadership, L.A. has never really established an identity like the other American Big Three, but this might be its chance, perhaps its last and only one.
With plenty of money (some of which will hopefully be added to the athletes’ prize coffers) and a new and experienced hand at the helm in the person of Tracey Russell, long time head of the Atlanta Track Club and its Peachtree Road Race, the ingredients are there, ready to be combined into a successful mix.
The bottom line is that Siegel made an executive decision, one that may ultimately determine his legacy and his fate at USATF. The move might not have been without controversy, but it’s the type of bold gamble that made him a success in the music and auto racing world, and why USATF hired him two years ago.
It remains to be seen how L.A. will make its distinctive mark on the Trials marathon – Vin Scully doing the introductions, bouncing low riders as the pace cars? – but the stakes are certainly high, both for marathoning in the City of Angels and for the head man of USATF as well.