Monday, February 9, 2009

Project 30 report critical of USATF's operations...

While Team USA won the most number of medals (23) at last year's Beijing Olympics, most observers of elite track and field were of the opinion that the 2008 US Olympic track and field team underperformed.

If gold medals are the standard by which a team is judged, the Beijing version of Team USA only produced seven medals, the least since the Eastern Bloc dominated 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

After witnessing first hand the failure, particularly in the technical and relay events of Team USA, new USA Track & Field chief executive officer Doug Logan appointed a blue-ribbon panel of former coaches, administrators, and Olympians, including nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis, marathoner Deena Kastor, and Federal Way's Aretha Thurmond, to examine the woes of the 2008 US Olympic track team, and to recommend changes to help the organization reach its goals of 30 clean medals in the 2012 London Olympics.

Its report was critical of what it considers a poorly structured federation and athletes who have not made winning Olympic medals and developing their sport their top priority.

“Through benign neglect, USATF has allowed shoe companies and agents to take over management of the sport,” the report states. “It is long overdue for USATF to take it back.”

It was critical of distance running coaches across the country who failed to utilize cutting-edge sports science to help maximize performance.

Quoting the report, "In one coach's words, American distance runners and coaches focus almost exclusively on physiology and endurance training, while it is biomechanics that is the difference between winning a medal and not making a final. Sport scientists confirm this reticence on the part of most American distance coaches. (It should be noted that two of the most successful distance coaches in the last three years have been the two coaches most often cited as applying sports science and biomechanics. At least one of them consults regularly with sprint coaches to discuss and analyze the biomechanics of his runners.) "

The committee recommended hiring a professional general manager entrusted with a high performance program designed to strengthen Olympic performance, preferably someone from outside track and field. That person would be responsible for fixing problems with Olympic coach selection and team operations, as well as charting a comprehensive preparation plan for the 2012 Olympics.

Key findings of the Task Force include:

* Overall, there is a lack of accountability, professionalism and cohesion in the areas the Task Force studied.

* The International Team Staff selection system lacks transparency and accountability, creating a culture of mistrust for coaches and athletes alike.

* International staffs need more managers and fewer coaches.

* The criteria for selecting track and field's U.S. Olympic Team should not change, but the Olympic Trials themselves should.

* Excessive travel and poor long-term planning on the part of athletes, their coaches and agents appear to be the greatest controllable factors negatively affecting Team USA performance in Beijing.

* Spending more than $1 million in the last six years, and with as many as 173 athletes taking part in it each year, the National Relay Program has failed to produce results that justify the costs of the program.

* Lack of communication between coaches and athletes, poor management of the relay pools and questions over which coaches were responsible for relays resulted in the 4x100m relay failures in Beijing.

* American coaches and athletes under-utilize the facilities and USATF sport science available to them.

* Inroads have been made into catching and punishing doping cheats, but more must be done to strengthen the anti-doping culture.

* American athletes as a group do not conduct themselves as true professionals, and USATF does not hold them to professional standards.

Based on its findings, the Task Force makes the following 10 Recommendations:

* Hire a professional General Manager of High Performance.

* Create a transparent, criteria-based Team Staff selection system.

* Restructure the composition of Team USA staffs.

* Shorten the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field to five days.

* Terminate the National Relay Program.

* Establish a comprehensive 2012 team preparation program.

* Target technical events for medal growth and develop those events.

* Create a well-defined Professional Athlete designation.

* Establish a more stringent anti-doping reinstatement system.

* Promote and foster a self-sustaining professional athletes' union.

One interesting tidbit from the report was the fact that athletes who were independent-minded, and had the ability to take care of themselves in the chaotic situation that is the Olympics tended to fare better than those dependent on entourages, and the personal support system, many of whom had limited access to Olympic facilities in Beijing (i.e., practice track access, athlete support credentials, etc.).

"For instance, Stephanie Brown-Trafton did not have personal coach access in Beijing and did not expect any special treatment. She won the first gold medal in the women's discus since 1932.

Similarly, Walter Dix's personal coach was not on hand at the stadium, yet he was the most successful American short sprinter at the Games. Athletes who can 'roll with the punches', and make decisions for themselves are best prepared for the Olympic Games and its specific, off-track challenges."

The complete 69-page report can be accessed here by clicking this link, courtesy of USA Track & Field.

NOTE: USA Track & Field contributed to this report.

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